Election coverage – week three

Sunday, June 3, 2001 by

Ratings continue to tumble. Viewers are switching off their sets in protest at relentless footage of vain, bickering groups of people struggling to survive in increasingly hostile, desperate circumstances.

The prospect of some of these personnel facing imminent exile into lifelong obscurity hasn’t caught the attention of audiences as the TV schedulers would like. The nation appears fed up with hearing the same sets of voices reciting the same hollow remarks, the same promises and complaints night after night. Programme executives are trying not to panic, but they’re faced with the reality that not even a post-eviction chatter with John Leslie seems to woo punters anymore.

The relative ratings flop that is Survivor (to date) compounds both ITV and BBC’s ongoing problem with sustaining audience share during this election campaign. Their respective flagship news programmes have continued to bleed viewers, despite remaining pretty impressive, balanced and often not a little cynical in tone. Moving into the final stages of the campaign has not witnessed a parallel intensifying of either excitement or even interest in events. Speculation on turnout and voter apathy is unending.

A poll which revealed more first time electors would rather cast a vote in Big Brother than on 7 June should have been greeted with more inevitability than surprise. But Channel 4 have undoubtedly benefited by cleverly placing the daily highlights of life in the Big Brother house at 10pm, up against both BBC and ITN evening news bulletins. Consequently they’ve secured impressive first week viewing figures, as bored and annoyed audiences search for an alternative to yet more volleys of soundbites and slurs.

Perhaps reflective of this, over the past few weeks both BBC2 and Channel 4 have sought to cover the election campaign through self-consciously alternative approaches. Jeremy Vine’s travelling Newsnight campervan, when not immobilised through engine problems or minor accidents, has continued an Interceptor-style chase around the country. Meanwhile his cohorts Jeremy Paxman and Kirsty Wark have been fronting a special weekend Newsnight each Saturday.

These have opted for the sort of deliberately wry and offbeat approach – usually summed up by that terrible phrase “a sideways look at …” – which used to be a hallmark of the late Vincent Hanna on C4′s Week in Politics. Viewers have been treated to various studio debates, each based around a mix-and-match panel format, lining up Clive Anderson alongside Adam Faith, and getting Mark Thomas to file reports on meritocracy followed by comments from hairdressers. The only real advantage to this has been that thanks to the programme’s length, there’s been plenty of time for the host to force the pundits to back up their glib remarks with further justification. This week also saw a welcome reappearance for Steve Nallon, who once more donned his twin set and pearls to present a special personal message from Baroness Thatcher.

Paxman has had each of the main party leaders up for interview. These have been far better cross-examinations than most during the campaign, again thanks to their duration - Newsnightcan afford to give over as much as 30 minutes to the one interrogation – and that Paxman himself hasn’t been too confrontational or playing up to his “rottweiler” reputation.

He’s still the best interviewer in the business; David Dimbleby’s handling of the PM and a studio audience during Wednesday’s Question Time Special was very poor in comparison. BBC1 has persisted in scheduling these symbolic “Challenge The Leader” encounters at 9pm, despite going up against (this week) the ITV Soap Awards, and previously the Champion’s League Final. In both instance the Beeb recorded embarrassingly low ratings; in both instances it could be argued they were also hardly providing soccer or soap haters a decent entertaining alternative.

Channel 4 have continued to produce some thoughtful films in their weekend Politics Isn’t Working strand. Promoted as answering questions and addressing issues other channels weren’t daring to confront, there’s inevitably been some hype and rather shameless exhibitionism about some of these programmes. An exposure on the “taboo” subject of European union was nowhere near as effective as an investigation on race, while Nick Cohen’s personal reflection, “The Dumbed Down Election”, came over a bit too preachy and smug. A more subtle exposition on the mechanics of the campaign, rather than melodramatic visual stunts and confrontations, might have had more impact and stuck in the memory longer.

BBC News 24 has had a very successful election. It’s proved particularly useful most mornings between 8am and 10am, when it broadcasts live coverage of each main Party’s daily press conferences. These notorious occasions have proved to be highly entertaining. Something seems to go wrong every single morning, while there’s also been plenty of prearranged gimmicks on the part of the assembled hacks (deciding collectively not to ask any questions until a female journalist had been called) plus the odd strikingly good gag or equally striking blunder by one of the politicos. Just as fun is the sight of all the newspaper, radio and TV reporters gathered together in one room and getting to be on camera. It’s intriguing seeing the way in which questions are “called” – how one Party might stick to an obvious pecking order (Andrew Marr, John Sergeant, Adam Boulton, Jon Snow every time), while another, to prove a point, will go for perversely random selections.

In the latter case this means opting for the rather hapless GMTV correspondent, whose sometimes bizarre questions have tended to warrant rather patronising responses from politicians of whatever hue. Nonetheless these events have made for some of the most memorable TV of the whole campaign. News 24 has been used well in this election, its political editor Nick Robinson is witty and articulate, and the service has realised its potential and proved invaluable to telly election addicts. In the evenings when sometimes it splits coverage of major speeches with its sister channel BBC Parliament, the viewer has had even more of the hustings at their disposal.

The TV networks should reflect on their performance in this election campaign as representing an adequate attempt at covering the plottings of a truly winsome bunch. As television performers – which is what all politicians are required to be nowadays – the country seems to have won itself a gruesome mob of scene stealers, woeful hams and cardboard pantomime villains.

Maybe election night itself will prompt some scenes of genuine emotion, passion and fiery encounters. A pity that so far the closest we’ve come has been arguments over the behaviour of the broadcasters themselves – the Government again complaining this week about the BBC, in this case over their decision to screen an edition of Panorama critical of their handling of the NHS. Thankfully there’s only a few hours to go now until the unveiling of Peter Snow’s “crumbling cliff” graphic, and for more of Anthony King’s subdued, understated analysis – “it’s like an asteroid hitting the earth and destroying all human life!”. Hooray!


Comments are closed.