“When it comes to this election, nobody knows anything, no one knows how it’s going to pan out, every scenario opens up a Pandora’s box for us,” says ITV News’ general election anchor Tom Bradby.
That presents broadcasters with the biggest challenge of any election they have covered.
They are spending more money than ever before – around £15m across the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky News and CNN International – and deploying more people to tell the story than ever. The BBC has around 2,000 staff working on election night, Sky 500, ITV roughly 650 and CNN around 150.
Big numbers, but with so many potential outcomes and later results they are expecting to be tested like never before. Gone are the parties and gimmicks and instead all the major news networks are focusing on what political editor Bradby says is “potentially a massive news story”.
“You normally would have a fairly clear idea of what’s happening, it was an event,” he explains. This is Bradby’s first election as main anchor and he says he “feels an incredible sense of excitement. I mostly feel I should be more worried than I am.”
He has had a gruelling campaign schedule already doing The Agenda, Tonight leader specials and being political editor. On 7 May he will be on air from 9.55pm, through the night and Good Morning Britain until he hands over to his predecessor Alastair Stewart at 9.25am. There will be no ad breaks.
Bradby says adrenaline will see him through: “I just view the night as an adventure. It will be complicated, we’re employing a lot of brain power” and it will be “chockful of analysts and insight.”
Emily Maitlis – who is analysing the results for the BBC on-screen on her own for the first time, in the corporation’s main studio in Elstree in Hertfordshire with David Dimbleby (who hands over to Huw Edwards in the morning before heading off to do a special Question Time later that day), Andrew Neil, Jeremy Vine and other key presenters – says she is “thinking quite a lot about my language” to explain the more complicated political scenario.
“You’re trying to tell a story, how it goes backwards and forwards at the same time. It’s slightly frustrating. We look back at 1997, that was easy by comparison.”
The other thing that has changed in this election is “it used to be you could book your holidays on May 8. May 7 is just half time. It’s the election that keeps on giving. It’s a breaking news story.”
She is wondering when she will fit in some sleep, having not yet been given a handover time: “I don’t have anyone to hand over to. Jeremy [Vine] and I were saying, when do we have a kip?”
Sky News’ Dermot Murnaghan has been tasked with taking over from Adam Boulton at around 7am on the Friday in a specially-built set in Westminster. His sixth election is, “honestly the only one where we have no idea of the result. No one has any idea.
“The point is we are there to deal with whatever is thrown at us by the wee small hours. This time it’s very much alive and all to play for and it’s up to us make some sense of it … there are bound to be recounts, there’s that juggling act.
“Being a wonk I don’t want to miss the night itself,” says Murnaghan who will rely on “a nap, strong coffee and fresh air” to see him through.
Channel 4 is presenting an alternative to its rivals, fronted by David Mitchell and Jeremy Paxman. Mitchell is due on air from 9pm to 6am and was one of the hosts five years ago.
“We aim to keep the irreverence and humour but add inquisitorial bite” with Paxman on board, he says.
He admits he was very nervous “before I met [Paxman] – he’s such a broadcasting icon – but it’s been a great experience. He’s been charming, funny and enthusiastic about being involved in a different sort of coverage. And he has enormous presence and insight into British politics. He will give the show much greater credibility and gravitas than it would have if it were just fronted by comedians like me.”
Channel 4’s approach is “very different”, says Mitchell. “We’ll tell viewers exactly what’s happening – they won’t miss anything – but we also aim to keep them amused and, when the process seems ridiculous, antiquated and irrelevant, to say so.
“We’ll also be questioning the whole process. Not questioning democracy itself, but the way it works in Britain at the moment. And I think comedy is a great way of doing that. The problems with our current system – the public’s dissatisfaction with the politicians it produces, the fact that our electoral system poorly reflects how the votes are cast and no longer even seems to result in strong governments, the increasing apathy particularly among younger potential voters, government’s failure to make international corporations pay tax, etc – these things are all serious but also potentially comedic.”
He doesn’t accept it will be too complicated: “In the end, it’s not that complicated. A party or [coalition of] parties needs the support of just over half the MPs in the Commons to form a stable government. That’s not rocket science, it’s just GCSE maths.”
Channel 4’s coverage begins with Paxman and Mitchell then switches to Gogglebox and live coverage from comedy chat show The Last Leg, some monologues from Paxman and insights from Mitchell and other figures such as Richard Osman before the results start coming in in the early hours.
“I don’t much like coffee so I’ll have to make do with an afternoon nap,” says Mitchell. “And adrenaline, I suppose. That’s my own adrenaline, not under-the-counter adrenaline provided to me in tablet form.”
Although gizmos have been cut back by the broadcasters, some inevitably remain to help viewers visualise the results.
ITV’s Julie Etchingham has an “incredibly sensitive” touch-screen. One of its features is a Commons Calculator which allows her to drop seats into a box and show the representation of the different parties by colour. When I tried it it ended up looking as though it was filled with distinctly muddy waters.
Her BBC counterpart Maitlis has a giant six-metre touch-screen (“I’d like to do the whole thing in trainers. From one end to the other is a big ask!” she jokes), which uses lasers and required the development of new technology. But it has a key function as she explains that for the first time the BBC is combining the exit poll with sophisticated algorithms to predict individual seats and see how they might relate to a national trend.
Sky has a game called Shaker Maker which involves creating a new government each time you shake your phone. CNN also has a game, called Build Your Own British Government, which allows players to fill seats and then comes up with a panel of policies.
They also have a red London double-decker bus, which popular business presenter Richard Quest has been flown over from the US to man. While Christiane Amanpour and Max Foster will present the main coverage, Quest will be out on the road in London with guests gauging reaction.
The different sets demonstrate the different broadcasters’ approaches too. The BBC has got its “Colosseum”-style set from 2010 out of storage, with Dimbleby in the centre, Vine nipping around the green virtual reality area and Andrew Neil interviewing upstairs. “These are austerity times and the set was one of the things I thought worked quite well,” says BBC election night editor Sam Woodhouse. It enables him to “save money and put it into bigger touch-screens or stuff that will actually enhance the viewing experience”.
He also says it helps create the sense of a “national event” and he hopes, “people to feel the thrills and spills”. The BBC’s focus is on it being an event – Woodhouse points out 65% of people turning out for something does not happen often.Woodhouse – who is on duty for 20 hours and fell asleep on the tube doing the length of the Jubilee line twice last time – acknowledges that the BBC often has to be seen to be keeping to a higher standard: “We’re very boring and wait for the returning officer and our telly will be behind every one else’s for that reason but you know … we’re in a world of Twitter and ‘Sky sources’ and we are publicly funded. The legal moment is when he reads it out so … this is why we’ll appear to be behind.”
In addition to being able to call on the BBC’s network of journalists and stringers around the UK, Woodhouse has what he calls “the Avengers assemble” – the team of household names such as Dimbleby, Fiona Bruce and Sophie Raworth (who will be building a giant virtual map to show gains at an undisclosed central London location) to call on who “only come together every five years”.
As well as having to get the set built and deal with all the technical issues on site, Woodhouse has to think about issues such as the weather. Due to the demand for satellite trucks for outside location broadcasts from all the channels the BBC has to ship in 45 from places including Portugal, Lithuania and Macedonia. They start rolling at 8am and are all met in Dover with trucks of TV equipment. All have two satnavs so the foreign drivers don’t get lost. “You pray for fair weather in the Channel on election day. A big storm and you’re buggered really,” says the calm Woodhouse.
Sky News does not have a set, more of a “results hub” manned from 9pm by Boulton, explains its director of news output John McAndrew. “It’s not that Adam is the anchor at the desk, for most of the night we are presenting with a multitude of presenters, they will all be presenting a bit of it. We don’t really have a conventional election set in the way the others might. We’ll go where the action is. So Kay, Jeremy, Eamonn, all our presenters will be out at the key stories. For the first few hours that’s where we’ll be presenting from, then this place will get hot around 2am/3am, then we relocate to Westminster for Friday/Saturday/Sunday because we don’t have an off-air time.”
He says Sky’s coverage will be more “Soccer Saturday rather than a chat show … Our whole thing is about speed and clarity”, and he agrees the breaking news nature of the story this time will play to Sky’s strength of being agile.
Sky is for the first time using digital technology to cover more seats, using (paid) students with digital cameras and a special app to file results from 150 marginal seats. Together with Sky reporters it gives the network three or four times more locations than five years ago.
Election night editor Nick Phipps says deciding which locations to be in is “a bit like 3D chess, to be honest. It’s so multi-faceted, we’re having to prepare for so many different eventualities. In previous elections we’d have been ruthlessly having to juggle more locations we could be at with sat dishes but the Sky 150 students give us more options.” He also has a new results system that integrates the web and television to show results speedily on-screen.
Over at ITV News they have a completely virtual set. There will also be an Opinion Room, manned by Nina Hossain and packed with journalists, opinion formers and representatives from Twitter and Facebook. Editor Alex Chandler says: “The main thing for us is to follow the story as it evolves. It’s really being responsive to the story. The detailed analysis is an absolute priority. The jeopardy is real here because the predictions are so close.”
CNN International’s director of programming for London, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Gill Penlington, says most of CNN’s coverage will not come from their central London headquarters but from outside locations, “which plays to CNN’s field strengths … we’re used to producing 24-hour rolling news.”
Channel 4 channel executive and head of special programmes Ed Havard does not deny suggestions that its programme’s feel will be something like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show: “We will not have a parade of commentators … it’s a big studio event with an audience,” he says, but Paxman will interview politicians of Boris Johnson’s calibre and use Channel 4 News journalists such as Matt Frei to report on key results in the early hours.
Social media has exploded since the last election. While ITV will be using a company to mine data from social media sites, others have tried to harness other developments. Sky has used Snapchat effectively through the campaign and will do so on the night to give different angles such as what it is like working in the newsroom or what politicians are wearing.
The BBC will have Laura Kuenssberg following social media in the main studio, although Woodhouse says he is yet to be convinced about mining it for data: “Twitter is basically the press release of choice now. As a newsgathering tool that’s fine but mining sentiment or how many mentions of David Cameron vs Miliband?”
The BBC traditionally wins the ratings battle, as Bradby acknowledges. Last time ITV was beaten by Channel 4 when the two went head to head. “We provide an alternative [to the BBC]. We won’t get hung up on a battle we might lose,” he says.
While this is Bradby’s first election as main anchor, it is due to be Dimbleby’s last for the BBC. However, there is talk of a potential second general election. When asked if Dimbleby might do another, Woodhouse says that is “way above” his pay grade.
The anchorman, he says, has not referred to it being his last: “It’s not what I’m conscious of and I don’t think he is. I don’t think he thinks he’s hanging up his boots. He’s doing Question Time and no one knows what the future is. He has the energy and ambition of the person who first appeared on election programmes in 1964.”
Maitlis adds: “I’ve done a lot of elections with David. He has always been great. He’s got a cheekiness as well. And he knows so much, he’s always guaranteed to ask you the one thing that you didn’t learn.”
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