Viewers vote with their feet at election coverage

Not even unleashing “attack dog” Reid on “posh” Paxman can lure them back

I get the feeling that British TV newsrooms are rather dreading the
forthcoming General Election. Although the outcome may be a bit less
predictable than in 2001, the media event is already in full swing and
there’s already a distinct whiff of ennui in the air.

Elections are not sexy. Viewing figures for TV news programmes
dropped noticeably during the last campaign, and 24-hour news channels
were especially hard hit. Ratings only really recovered due to the
tragic events of 9/11 later that year.

Even in the watershed
campaign of 1997 the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News lost two million viewers –
nearly a third of its audience – when it added an extra 15 minutes of
special election coverage each weeknight.

Sadly, even the most
thrilling political event cannot compete with showbusiness. Sky News
found that Michael Jackson’s no-show for his trial in California
massively out-rated the marathon terrorism debate in Parliament on the
same day.

Elections are also expensive and, remember, all the big organisations bust the bank to bring us terrific tsunami coverage.

Satellite
technology allows TV to mount wallto- wall coverage of election
campaigns, but even if it’s expected, it’s not necessarily wanted and
it’s also extremely expensive to do. The results programmes have to
have ever bigger and flashier sets, and they don’t come cheap either.

Commercial income is also hit by general elections.

There’s
no government advertising allowed during the campaign proper – and that
means a drop in ad sales. Worse still, party election broadcasts play
havoc with ratings as millions reach instinctively for their zappers.

For all the reasons stated, general elections are not popular for the big commercial broadcasters.

Although
we’re still six weeks off the likely election, it feels like we’re
already in full campaign mode. We’ve had synchronised mini-manifesto
launches, political promises galore, daytime TV appearances by
political leaders, some classic confrontations between politicians and
real people, plus the obligatory bust-ups between the party bosses and
the broadcasters.

My personal favourite was the heavyweight bout between Glasgow’s John “attack dog” Reid and west London’s Jeremy “posh” Paxman.

It
is inconceivable that a network television interviewer in the USA would
use the attack dog metaphor – even though Donald Rumsfeld would
probably enjoy being called a Republican Rottweiler.

It is also
inconceivable that a politician such as John Reid would ever sneer at a
plain voter because he happened to have a west London flat and an
Oxbridge education. Most people think that kind of class warfare went
out of mainstream politics a decade ago.

You do have to ask yourself: where is the respect – let alone the love?

The
Newsnight punch-up seems, superficially at least, to support John
Lloyd’s thesis that journalists and politicians operate in some kind of
artificial cocoon and that the big media players now regard themselves
as more powerful and influential than elected politicians.

I
disagree with this thesis. If British journalists lack deference
towards politicians then they apparently take their cue from the
general public.

Tony Blair and the other leaders have been shown
scant respect by voters so far. In fact, they’ve been given a pretty
good kicking on various inquisition programmes involving questions from
the public.

In two of the more memorable encounters Tony Blair
was asked how he slept at night with the death of Iraqi citizens on his
conscience.

What
could he possibly say? Shortly afterwards he was asked whether he would
be willing to wipe the backsides of hospital patients for five pounds
an hour. His eyes swivelled and his shoulders hunched, but he managed
somehow to take his attacks on the chin.

These two questions may
have been legitimate from an “ordinary voter”, but I doubt if a
professional interviewer would have got away with such personal and
pointed remarks.

I recently showed these two clips to news colleagues from Germany, Holland, Hungary and France, and they were utterly astounded.

Firstly,
they couldn’t believe that viewers could be so rude to political
leaders, especially the main man. Secondly, they were amazed that
politicians were willing to subject themselves to the indignity of a
public grilling.

I tried to explain that British politicians
volunteered for this kind of show in order to help reconnect with a
disenchanted electorate. They just looked perplexed.

When I used the term “masochism strategy”

they
began to nod slowly and look knowingly at one another. Apparently
masochism is something we Brits have a bit of a reputation for on the
continent.

It will be interesting to see if politicians ontinue
to pursue their sado-masochistic relationship with “real” people or
whether they decide it is preferable, after all, to be Paxoed or
Humphried instead. At least there are some basic ground rules in the
professional verbal fight.

Finally, TV news programmes have no
diary columns or editorials, so I hope you’ll bear with me if I use a
paragraph or two to reply to a nasty little campaign being waged
against Five News by The Observer.

For two weeks running, the
paper’s media diarist implied that viewing figures to Five News have
fallen since we moved the contract from ITN to Sky News. In fact, our
audience so far this year is up some 6.4 per cent on our average
viewing in 2004.

I would also like to point out that even our
worst-performing 5.30 news programme has more viewers than The
Observer’s average readership of 437,000, and furthermore, that while
our audience is rising, The Observer’s readership is actually falling
year on year by three per cent – faster than any other Sunday
broadsheet.

So there!

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five

Next week:Janice Turner

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