U.K. leaders’ debate takes 37% share

First ever televised contest pulls in 9.4 million

LONDON — Blighty’s first televised debate between the leaders of the main political parties nabbed a 37% audience share Thursday evening.

The show, which aired on commercial channel ITV1 between 8.30 p.m. and 10 p.m., averaged 9.4 million viewers, outgunning all other programs that day.

Top sudsers “Coronation Street” and “EastEnders” had nabbed shares of 35.8% (8 million) and 27.2% (5.9 million), respectively, earlier in the evening.

The aud share of the debate, between Labour’s Gordon Brown, the Conservatives’ David Cameron and the Liberals’ Nick Clegg, compares well with the average of 5.5 million (22%) for that timeslot on ITV1.

The debate’s audience peaked at 10.3 million, repping a 40% share.

Clegg, whose party is the smallest of the three, was judged by most opinion polls to have performed best. The Guardian/ICM poll gave him 51% approval, compared with Cameron’s 20% and only 19% for Brown, the Prime Minister.

The same poll found that 23% said the debate had led them to change their mind, regarding their voting intention.

Commentators agreed with the polls. Clegg “looked sharp, was consistently articulate, and was able to challenge the other two candidates pointedly and effectively,” Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, commented in the Guardian newspaper.

Sabato praised the tightly controlled structure of the debate, which encouraged quick fire answers. The leaders’ responses were limited to a minute and the audience were not allowed to respond in any way, even clapping.

“There were plenty of memorized soundbites, yet the format encouraged quick thinking and gave voters a sense of the mental agility of each candidate,” Sabato said.

There will be further debates on pubcaster BBC and satcaster BSkyB before the election on May 6.

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