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Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 16:46 GMT 17:46 UK
Election battle for broadcasters
Nick Higham
The UK's broadcasters want your vote during the election campaign, as the BBC's media correspondent Nick Higham reports.

Four years ago a study of TV coverage of the 1997 election came to the unsurprising conclusion that most people thought there had been too much of it.

The study, carried out for the Independent Television Commission, found that women and first-time voters especially were turned off by the torrent of special programmes, extended news programmes, political punditry, party press conferences and stage-managed photocalls from every corner of the country.

Peter Snow on Election 97 - BBC One
Swing thing: Many viewers thought 1997's coverage was too much
Too much of the coverage, viewers thought, concentrated on the leaders and their personalities and on the detail of the campaigns.

Too much of it was too negative. Viewers wanted more about policies and their impact on ordinary people, and more straight answers to questions.

In the light of that you might have expected broadcasters to have scaled back their coverage this time round.

Cleft stick

Instead they find themselves caught in a cleft stick - fearful of boring viewers and listeners, but also conscious that they have a duty to report the campaign as fully as they can in the interests of democracy.

Jeremy Paxman
Decoding the spin: Jeremy Paxman
So the BBC is extending its main evening news at ten o'clock by around seven minutes a night to incorporate extra election coverage - less than in 1997, but still a signifcant gesture - and the corporation's current affairs programmes have piled in with enthusiasm.

The BBC's chief political rottweilers, John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman, are both being given their heads.

Humphrys is presenting the Today programme on Radio 4 five days a week instead of his usual three. The BBC's main television interviews with party leaders will be not on BBC One as in the past but in an extended Newsnight on BBC Two, mostly conducted by Paxman.

Jonathan Dimbleby
Backing ITV: Jonathan Dimbleby lines up against brother David
Labour weren't happy at what they saw as the sidelining of the party leaders on the minority channel, and initially threatened a boycott by Tony Blair. The party accepted only when the BBC made clear it would go ahead even if the Prime Minister refused to take part.

Campaign junkies

But each leader will also get an hour to himself in primetime on BBC One, in a series of special editions of Question Time hosted by the elder statesman of BBC political coverage, David Dimbleby.

For real campaign junkies special programmes include a daily Election Call with Peter Sissons broadcast simultaneously on Radio 4 and BBC Two, and a programme each afternoon on BBC Two presented by Andrew Neil.

Trevor McDonald
Sir Trevor McDonald hosts extended ITV bulletins
ITV is also extending News at Ten with Sir Trevor McDonald - although since it's only a 20 minute programme normally it will still be shorter than its extended BBC rival - and the other Dimbleby, Jonathan, will be hosting ITV's set-piece interviews with the leaders, with contributions and questions from a live audience.

The challenge for all the broadcasters is to interest an audience which repeatedly claims to be bored by politics.

Debunking pomposity

So ITV's main current affairs show, Tonight with Trevor McDonald, is sending its reporter Jonathan Maitland, whose specialities include entertaining debunking of pomposity, on the battle buses to profile the party leaders.

Sky News will have a twice weekly series of reports by young journalists, Children's Express, to balance the analysis and gravitas of its political editor Adam Boulton.

Polly Billington
Polly Billington is Radio 1's campaign correspondent
Radio 1 - which now has its own political correspondent, Polly Billington - is offering each party the chance to produce a Minute Manifesto just 60 seconds long, homing in on issues of particular interest to the network's 15-24 year old listeners.

But Channel 5 is going furthest in the battle to make its political coverage interesting - and perhaps risking controversy in the process.

It's drafted in the husband and wife team of James and Lucy O'Brien from its entertainment show, The Wright Stuff, to present its nightly election news coverage.

Jerry Springer
Five's surprise: Jerry Springer
And the network is flying over Jerry Springer, the king of American trash TV talk shows, to film a British version of his chat show and make a documentary about the election from an outsider's point of view.

Channel 5 hasn't given up hope of persuading the party leaders to submit to Springer's unique line of questioning - though it's safe to assume that, unlike many Springer show participants, Messrs Blair, Hague and Kennedy won't resort to fisticuffs.


Nick Higham welcomes your comments at entertainment.news@bbc.co.uk, although he cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

15 May 01 | Features
Politics at prime time
14 May 01 | Vote2001
Election TV switched on
24 Apr 01 | TV and Radio
ITV unveils election team
30 Apr 01 | TV and Radio
Springer joins election news team
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