Whatever its political importance, the first leaders’ debate was fairly bleak television. The set was basic and the National Press Club audience may as well not have been there, as far as the viewing audience was concerned. The broadcast was 23 minutes old before the panel of three journalists became involved. Kevin Rudd’s treating the debate as an open-book exam was really not its biggest problem.
To people outside television (and perhaps to some insiders) this might sound excessively shallow. Surely it’s the content that matters? (Though, as plenty of others have noted there was little new material from the two leaders.)
But content for television generally requires packaging for best effect. You only have to Google images from some of the more recent UK and US national election debates to get some idea of the effort that was put into presentation. All before the candidates had said a word.
The daily television ratings report by Glenn Dyer in Crikey shows the first 2013 debate was the most-watched program of the night. In all, 2.3 million tuned in across the FTA and pay options. But compare that with the ‘great debate’ between then PM Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott in the 2010 campaign.
The Gillard-Abbott debate was not its night’s ratings winner. Its figures were dwarfed by those for the series final of Masterchef. But it ran second with a combined FTA, real time, audience (from 7, 9 and ABC) of 3,048,000, significantly more than this year.
In 2010, the networks’ ‘sister channels’ were either new or still being rolled out. Both Seven and Nine ran the debate on their main channel and it was Seven that picked up the biggest audience. ABC, which unlike the commercials ran a ‘worm’ -free transmission, rated third. (Ten aired its broadcast late in the evening rather than in real time.)
This time, the commercial stations relegated the debate to their sister channels. That gave viewers a choice on the main FTA band and the larger share of the audience opted for entertainment over politics.
This year, unlike 2010, the unadorned transmission on the ABC was the most watched version of the debate. This might suggest that viewers are becoming jaded by worms and Twitter crawls. But it might also be a sign of how many viewers source their programs from the old five FTA channels and are reluctant to look further afield.
Any commercial television executives watching the 2013 debate must have been relieved they stuck with scheduled programs on their main band. The breakdown of ratings figures, showing details of traffic flows within the hour of the debate, will be closely scrutinised.
One legacy of the first 2013 debate might be that political debates are no longer seen as the prime-time viewing winners they used to be. That would be an unfortunate outcome.