No debate: TV was decisive

Medium wins battle in U.K. election

No single political party won the recent U.K. election outright but TV, often seen as the Internet’s wrinkled, worn-out forebear, won the media battle by an unexpected landslide.

The contest, which has yielded Blighty’s first coalition government since WWII, is likely to be regarded by communications experts as a case study in modern media.

TV triumphed, energizing the political discourse with the first televised debates between the leaders of the political parties — Prime Minister Gordon Brown for Labour, Conservative David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg.

“One reason they made such an impact and became the campaign’s epicenter was because the audience immediately understood they were watching what was in effect a political version of ‘American Idol,’ ” reckons Peter Bazalgette, former creative topper at Endemol, who brought “Big Brother” to Blighty.

“Beforehand the pundits said this would be Britain’s first Internet election, but this was first and foremost a TV election,” he adds.

In pure numbers the ratings for the debates, which aired on the BBC, commercial web ITV1 and News Corp.’s Sky News, under-plays the transforming effect they had on the campaign.

The first, shown by ITV1 on April 15, was the most popular as up to 9.4 million tuned in for the pols’ perf — a 37% share.

But they allowed TV to set the election agenda, stealing it away from the U.K.’s powerful and highly opinionated national press.

Crucially, the debates turned what was a two-horse race between the veteran, battle-scarred Brown and fresh-faced fortysomething Cameron, into a three-horse contest with Clegg, thanks to his barn-storming perf on the tube.

Ultimately, Clegg failed to translate that into an increased number of MPs when Brits voted May 6.

His party actually lost ground with the Lib Dems returning five fewer MPs than during the 2005 election.

But, arguably, without the high profile generated by his mastery of live TV, Clegg’s party would’ve been unable to negotiate the coalition with the Conservatives, which enabled Cameron to become Prime Minister and earned Clegg his new position as deputy prime minister.

“The debates transformed Britain’s political culture because of Clegg’s remarkable performance in the first TV contest,” says Bazalgette. He adds, “Social media played its part in this election, but it was not decisive.”

However, the impact of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube was significant.

“Someone summed it up when they said that Facebook and Twitter provided the kindling for the TV bonfire,” observes media commentator Steve Hewlett.

“This wasn’t an Internet-driven election in the way that President Obama’s was in the U.S. Politicians didn’t use the Internet to raise campaign money. Social media enabled professional pundits, ordinary voters and politicians to provide a running commentary and amplify what was happening. Hundreds of thousands of people were able to express an opinion about politics.”

Bazalgette adds, “Twitter also enabled people to share the excitement of the what was happening live on election night, when Sky News came into its own because it was able to turn the raw data into a gripping narrative.

“We know how social media interacts with TV talent shows and football matches, but had overlooked how this would play out in an election.”

Ultimately, British democracy looks to be the real beneficiary.

As the TV debates re-ignited disillusioned voters’ interest in the political process — turnout increased by 4% to 65.1% — and social media like Twitter created a different kind of national conversation, British media’s election coverage has changed forever.