If the political coup of the TV debates has been the effect of giving the Lib Dems equal billing with the two “old parties” as Nick Clegg puts it – the media coup has been giving Sky equal billing to broadcast one of three debates alongside the two old broadcasters, BBC and ITV.
Sky News will have achieved the biggest TV audience in its history tonight and threw all its resources behind putting on the best show it could.
The staging of the Bristol debate was far more lavish than the rather plastic Granada studio on ITV last week.
From the aerial shot of the floodlit venue and the trumpet fanfare to the red, white and blue emblazoned set – Sky gave the debate more gravitas and a greater sense of occasion. The Sky News branding was everywhere and a bit over-the-top, but with no ad breaks for ninety minutes they had to cash in somehow. And I think this was one occasion when they could have dispensed with the distracting breaking news ticker at the bottom of the screen.
The seated Adam Boulton had more authority than last week’s roving Alastair Stewart and he seemed far more relaxed – too relaxed if anything at times, almost looking bored by the minimal role the debate rules afforded him. He was more hands-off than Stewart meaning that the debate was more fluid and we were given a greater insight into the way the candidates interacted.
Boulton stretched the rules further than Stewart editorialising just a tad in a couple of places but he was evidently on pain of death to be on his best behaviour, lest Sky blows its big chance and doesn’t get invited to be involved next time.
When it came to a question about standards in public life Boulton gently reminded Clegg about today’s Daily Telegraph front page which makes allegations about payments into his bank account by party backers. Clegg looked slightly miffed that Boulton had brought it up but just dismissed the story as “complete nonsense”.
Sky’s choice of questions was more adventurous than ITV’s – with questions about the Catholic church and child abuse and the candidates’ personal green transport habits forcing them to think hard on their feet.
This was a massive night for Sky News and it rose to the occasion, it will be interesting to see if – like the Lib Dems – it gets a longer term ratings bounce.
For Adam Boulton: 7/10 (The same as Alastair Stewart).
For Sky News: 8/10 (slightly better than ITV)