The start of the election campaign means we can look forward to the three debates with the party leaders, the first of which will be on 15th April at 8.30pm on ITV1. How popular do we think they will be? I think we can assume they will draw substantial audiences. There’s a real public appetite for knowledge and an established interest in set-piece debates.

The benchmark for political debate was set by last year’s Question Time featuring the BNP’s Nick Griffin which had an audience of 8.3 million/50% share, with almost a million more watching on the iPlayer. Bearing in mind that the leaders debate will occupy 90 primetime minutes, the figure of 8 million should be a realistic target for what will be a first on television in this country.

Will the two following debates match it? Much depends on whether the format proves entertaining enough. If the dry run with the Chancellors on Channel 4 last week is anything to go on, then there seems to be some strength of interest in political debate for this election. Ask the Chancellors had a strong audience of 1.7 million/7% share in the Monday night 8pm Dispatches slot, well ahead of most of the current affairs programmes which occupy that slot.

One reason why viewers will embrace the debates can be found in the weekend’s entertainment shows – people love to engage in voting competitions, such as the latest Lloyd-Webber search for a star competition, BBC1’s Over the Rainbow. There is a however a gulf between the most effective of voting competitions, ITV’s X Factor, and weaker strains of the genre – Over the Rainbow’s Saturday show had 5.4 million/25% share at 7.30pm, following in the slipstream of the new Dr Who which launched with 7.6 million/35% share. In contrast Sunday’s Over the Rainbow results show had just 3.6 million/19% share at 6.15pm, suggesting the audience has not engaged with the competition in this early stage.

The worst thing that could happen to the politicians is that the public decides, after the first debate, that the format or the contestants are not sufficiently interesting. There are flaws with the format – just three contestants and only three programmes. In the entertainment world, the programmes would be spread over a longer period of time.

And, perhaps crucially, we should bear in mind that there’s no telephone vote at the end of the three debates. Anyone who wants to vote in the next leader of the country will have to wait a few days and then leave the house in order to make the trip to a polling booth in an old fashioned sort of way. Maybe these flaws will put the ratings potential of political debate as entertainment to a serious test.

On the other hand, evidence from America suggests the debates are also capable of creating drama to match the final of most entertainment shows. I suppose the good news is we’ll know who’s going to be the next Prime Minister before the nation chooses the next Dorothy.

Philip Reevell is managing director of City Broadcasting. His Reevell’s Ratings blog can be found at: http://reevellsratings.blogspot.com/

Staff Reporter