The nights on which federal elections are decided are some of the rare occasions on which all of Australia’s main free-to-air networks suspend their normal programming and engage in a common endeavour.
Since everyone is working with essentially the same narrative the differences must be created in the packaging and the speed with which outcomes are conveyed.
This year, for the first time, the stations generated their election night coverage without the common backdrop of the Australian Electoral Commission’s Canberra Tally Room, now retired due to cost.
Although the Tally Room had ceased to be technically necessary to the stations some years ago it provided a lively background and contributed to the ‘buzz’ of the live broadcasts. The common areas of the Tally Room were open to the public. Politicians and other analysts not contracted to specific stations for the night could wander from one set to another to be interviewed.
Without the images and noise of the Tally Room, the television networks were left to generate the anticipation of a nation deciding its political future from their own studios. They did this with varying degrees of success.
All three commercial channels featured cinerama-style panels of eight or so people, combining presenters, political reporters and political analysts (mostly former politicians).
Network Ten reprised The Election Project, first tried 2010. That year it aired a one hour special that mixed its political reporters and the news commentary and comedy team from The Project. This time Ten gave it four hours. The panel included political reporter Hugh Riminton, former Democrats leader, Natasha Stott Despoja, Todd Sampson from Gruen and 2GB’s Steve Price. There was a studio audience to lend atmosphere.
Seven’s coverage was hosted by its Sydney newsreader, Chris Bath, and political reporter Mark Riley, with panelists Paul Howes from the AWU, Bob Katter, Senator Don Farrell, Christopher Pyne, Alexander Downer, Jeff Kennett and Bronwyn Bishop. Seven’s presentation also included ‘Your Call’ segments hosted by former Sunrise host Melissa Doyle and Matt White pulled up comments from social media.
Nine chose breakfast presenters Lisa Wilkinson and Karl Stefanovic to host and teamed them with Laurie Oakes, Peter Costello, Amanda Vanstone, Craig Emerson, Simon Crean, Scott Morrison and Lachlan Harris. Like 7 it also had segments where comments from social media were called up on screen.
Social media may have played a significant role in the campaign but their use in the election night broadcasts was minimal and curiously flat. The tweets from Julia Gillard were among the few that stood out.
Animated displays of results and live crosses to key electorates and the leaders’ speeches are routine, so the commercial networks had to look elsewhere to generate points of differences in their approach.
At Ten, the panel was younger than those at the other networks and the coverage included The Project’s irreverent style.
It wouldn’t be Australia without a touch of irreverence. At Seven, the presenters threw to a ‘Wheel of Fortune’ animation to show the total number of seats assigned to each party.
At Nine, candidates didn’t just lose, they were dropped down ‘The Gurgler’. This was a graphic of a pool with a circling shark which appeared on screen in front of the panelists and into which photos of failed candidates were dropped, sometimes again and again.
LOL. Or not. This treatment of losing candidates (and politics more generally) as a joke might be one of those ideas that looks less amusing in retrospect, though Nine did something similar in 2007 when it used ‘The Shredder’.
On election night 2010, the ABC won the television ratings, and by a significant margin.
It will likely have done so again. It deserved to. For one thing, the ABC had the greatest number of political reporters to draw on (even if Leigh Sales was notable in her absence). Then there was national treasure, Antony Green.
In addition, the ABC’s production was sharper. It eschewed the giant panel, opting instead for a smaller team in the main studio (led by Kerry O’Brien, with Arthur Sinodinos, and Annabel Crabb handling the live crosses) and a separate small panel, led by Tony Jones, in a second studio. That gave the broadcast more variety and avoided the sometimes unwieldy feel of the discussions on the commercial networks’ panels.
Antony Green employed a touch screen to present incoming results in a variety of formats and even when it faltered it was engaging.
Finally there was Joe O’Brien in the ‘virtual parliament’, walking through a digitally-generated House of Representatives to show how the composition of the chamber was changing. This was touted as a first. But Network 9 did something similar in 2010.
The ABC invited several hundred members of the public to its Sydney HQ to watch the broadcast. Mostly they were background sound and soft focus images of milling and thronging behind the panel. But they gave the broadcast the feel of a public event rather than a sterile studio production.