How will this week’s third and final election leaders debate rate? The first, two weeks ago, had the sensational outcome of being a real game-changer, catapulting Nick Clegg to a 30% share of voting intentions.

This week it’s no exaggeration to suggest that the outcome of the election could depend on a single 90 minute programme.

In my previous blog I suggested that the audience benchmark had been set by the figures achieved last year by the Question Time programme featuring the BNP, which had 8.3 million viewers. This pointed to the debate achieving a substantial audience. So it proved with 9.5 million people watching the ITV programme.

Last week’s follow-up debate on Sky also delivered big, by the standards of a digital channel, but not on the same scale as the first ITV1 debate. According to Attentional, the audience on Sky News was an impressive 2.1 million and taking into account simulcasts and repeats, the debate had an audience of 4.4 million.

However, although this was a big audience by digital standards, it was not significant in terms of being able to move the polls. For the pundits the significance of the debate was the inability of the two major parties to peg-back Clegg. For the TV audience-watcher the question it raises is whether the gap between the first and second debate will impact on the audience for the third debate on BBC1.

If this were a conventional reality competition, the fact that the second show had less than half of the audience of the first would be taken as a sign of lack of interest from the audience. Different conventions apply here. More likely the nation will turn to the BBC, as it does for other major occasions, such as the World Cup, in order to make up its mind.

In which case the audience figure to watch is that which is being achieved by the one of the biggest competition shows on TV, Britain’s Got Talent, which had an audience of over 10 million for its second show in the new series, last Saturday. It seems highly likely that the leaders debate will draw a bigger audience than the first ITV debate, so a 10 million-plus audience should be on the cards.

Of course, if it turns out that the Sky News debate took some of the wind out of the sails of the election programmes, then 10 million may turn out to be something of a challenge. If the show rates lower than the ITV programme, it’s likely to spell bad news for the Liberal Democrats.

So who will win the final leaders debate? Sometimes in these talent competitions, the unheralded contender who emerges from the early auditions falls narrowly at the final hurdle to a more conventional figure. Sometimes, however, the final provides the impetus to stardom. Is Nick Clegg’s unexpected breakthrough going to propel him to a phenomenal win, like Susan Boyle. Or could the voting intentions of the electorate diverge from their viewing patterns at the last minute?

Philip Reevell is managing director of City Broadcasting. His Reevell’s Ratings blog can be found at:

Staff Reporter

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