Real people can be a real turn-off for election news

The casting of ordinary folk to keep viewers switched can be a bit gimmicky

If you see a man in a very smart suit standing outside your window
surrounded by satellite dishes and people with clipboards, don’t be
alarmed.

There hasn’t been a drive-by shooting on your street, it’s just the TV News trying to jazz up its general election coverage.

On
the first day of the campaign proper, I recorded and watched every news
programme on BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, Channel 4 and Five, and I have to
say they’ve surpassed themselves with ingenious gimmicks and devices to
encourage you not to switch off the news during the 25 days of
electioneering.

This was the the day of the Tory Manifesto
launch, the birth of baby Donald Kennedy and the continuing debacle at
Rover. It was also the day the TV news programmes wheeled out their big
election ideas.

Half-way through the campaign I can report that the common theme of the coverage is “power to the people”.

TV
news producers have taken their cue from the world of reality
programming and factual entertainment and decided the key to successful
coverage is to place “real” voters centre stage.

Some of the experiments have been very entertaining; others frankly seem a waste of time.

Reality
shows spend huge amounts of time and money on casting their programmes,
seeking out individuals with character, personality and humour, and
there’s a good reason for that.

The truth is that we are only
interested in the opinions of “ordinary” people if we care about those
people in the first place. The fact that they are first-time voters or
voters from a marginal constituency doesn’t stop them being dull,
boring or irrelevant.

To get close to “real” people the BBC and
ITV are presenting their main evening news programmes from location
rather than studio.

On Day 1 of the campaign George Allagiah was
presenting the Six O’Clock News from central Birmingham on the back of
the open-top BBC Battle Bus.

But Mark Austin got even closer to
the people by presenting the ITV Early Evening News on the front lawn
on Mrs Anne Clark’s semi-detached in Selby, North Yorkshire.

Mrs
Clark is a member of ITV’s Ballot Box Jury – a group of undecided
voters who are the equivalent of Big Brother housemates, except they
can’t get voted off.

Austin seemed a little uncomfortable in the
role of Davina McCall, and after the explanatory package and a brief
tour of the household, which lasted nearly five minutes, poor Mrs Clark
got precisely 60 seconds to tell us what it was she actually thought.

A
more entertaining gimmick was the Newsnight feature Student House,
which stars seven slightly scrofulous youngsters getting to grips with
their first general election. This political version of the Young Ones
already has a bit of cult following thanks to the engaging characters
and the excellent hosting by Steve Smith – a recent poach from Channel
4 News.

My favourite moment was one student’s admission that he
was only getting into politics because he was having to sit through the
whole of Newsnight every evening in order to watch himself on the TV
Channel 4 road-tested the new Conservative Manifesto with “real” voters
in a marginal constituency in Lancashire. This was pretty traditional
fare and I suspect that Channel 4 News has decided it will be a
gimmick-free zone.

After overdoing it at 6.30, The ITV News at
10.30 more or less ignored real people. Instead, it did a pretty good
job deconstructing Tory immigration policy in its regular Unspun item
with Tom Bradby and his gang of experts doing the fact-checking.

Other
experiments I sat through included the BBC Breakfast’s video phone
message forum – such poor picture quality I could barely watch let
alone listen – and the nightly My Britain feature on the BBC Ten
O’Clock News, which stars a range of ordinary voters talking about the
issues which matter to them.

After a whole day of this it struck
me that TV news’ obsession with “real” issues expressed by “real”
people is ironically out of step with the reality of politics in 2005.

When
there’s so little to chose between the main parties on the major issues
such as health, education and spending, it is probably more helpful –
and more fun – to focus on personalities.

That’s why my favourite
news reports so far have been the body language analysis on ITV and
something similar on Five. The deconstruction of the Labour Party
Election broadcast featuring the Blair/Brown love fest made me hoot
with laughter.

The impetus behind all this feature journalism is
a concerted attempt to avoid boring the viewers with dry, traditional
political coverage.

While this may indeed be more appealing to
the viewer, in the end too many political features mean more minutes
devoted to the election and less to other news.

Armed with a
stopwatch, I calculated the percentage of editorial airtime devoted to
the general election in each of the day’s terrestrial news programmes.
The graphic shows the results in ascending order The fact that the ITV
Evening News carried the highest percentage of election coverage –
higher than even Newsnight, Channel 4 News and the BBC Ten O’Clock News
– may surprise some people, but about a third of that coverage was
taken up by the Ballot Box Jury feature and package which introduced
the concept to viewers.

So has all this effort and time
succeeded? I’ll leave the detailed analysis to the experts, but the Sky
News Viewer Interest Index suggests not.

After the first full week of coverage it dropped from a chilly minus 32 to a freezing minus 34.

Finally,
there’s been an interesting side competition among TV news
organisations to unveil ever more unusual means of transport for their
election reporters. Apart from the BBC doubledecker bus, there’s
Declan’s motorcyle sidecar on BBC Breakfast, Alex Crawford in a Union
Jack Mini on Five, and the ITV barge, from which they will present
their results programme on 5 May.

The man with the biggest fuel
bill is Michael Crick in the Newsnight helicopter. Crick and his flying
machine are like some gigantic bluebottle buzzing around the country
irritating anyone they can find. On the very first day of the election
campaign he managed to annoy Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and even Alex
Ferguson. Perhaps aerial doorstepping is the next big thing.

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