16 Apr 2010 00:00:00.000
With the historic first televised ‘leaders’ debate broadcast, The University of Nottingham has announced a collaboration with the BFI National Archive's Screenonline resource (www.screenonline.org.uk
), to present a timely new investigation on the history and impact of the party election broadcast (PEB), which makes available and explains a selection of digitised broadcasts dating back to 1951.
Although now a staple of British television during a general election the PEB has changed radically in character and importance since the BBC transmitted the first one in 1951
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Professor Philip Cowley from the School of Politics and International Relations is one of the lead investigators: “Politicians always seek the best means of communicating with the voters. For much of the 19th century this was the public meeting, where, such was the small size of the electorate, it was possible to address every voter.
“These gatherings were often robust affairs in which heckling, humour and violence were common: they were often a source of entertainment as much as political edification.
“However, as the electorate expanded to include first middle-class men (1832), then skilled men (1867), all men and older women (1918) and finally all adults (1928), so the parties needed to exploit other means of mass communication if they were to reach the many millions who could now vote. First the press, then radio and cinema were all used to get the parties' messages across.“
The desire to reach voters hasn't diminished, but the ways in which the parties are getting their messages across has changed.
Co-author of the article, Professor Steven Fielding says the initial broadcasts were very specifically targeted: “The BBC started television broadcasting in the 1930s albeit to a tiny and privileged audience: by 1939, when war forced the service to shut down, there were at most 15,000 sets.
“By the time the BBC resumed its television service in 1946 politicians had become dimly aware of its potential. In 1947 the three main parties and the BBC formed a Committee on Party Political Broadcasts.
“This regulated the number of slots to be allocated, largely following the practice established for BBC radio, which started broadcasting election appeals in 1924. While the details have changed, this remains the essential means of distributing PEBs, one based on an agreed formula in which seats contested and votes won dictate how many free-to-air slots a party may receive in any nationally conducted election.
“While this has always meant that the two main parties get the lion's share, it has also allowed newer and/or smaller parties — like the Greens, UKIP and the BNP — to gain at least one PEB per election provided they field sufficient candidates.“
The article states that: In its earliest days, television was seen as a potential threat to democracy. In his 1933 novel, Rinehard, Liberal politician Thomas F. Tweed anticipated a world in which leaders would use television broadcasts to commune directly with voters and by-pass the established institutions of democracy. More famously, the all-seeing 'telescreen' kept the people in awe of Big Brother in George Orwell's 1984.
For a time, political commentators credited PEBs with a profound power to alter voters' minds. However, by the 1960s academic studies showed that their impact was much more modest, that if they promoted a party's message they did not play a decisive role in actually changing people's minds. In fact a 1990 survey found that PEBs were the least-trusted source of political information, apart from the Sun newspaper.
In the multi-channel world in which we now live, the importance of the PEB has probably diminished compared to the 1970s. After 1987 they stopped being broadcast simultaneously across the channels.
Moreover, fewer people now watch terrestrial television and the huge number of digital channels are not obliged to show PEBs (although Sky News does). Still, during the 2005 campaign, opinion pollster MORI discovered that 70 per cent of people had seen at least one PEB. Perhaps one reason why the main parties have all agreed to participate in the leaders' debates in the 2010 campaign is because they need newer means to engage with the voters.
— Ends —
Notes to Editors: The BFI’s Screenonline www.screenonline.org.uk is an online education resource devoted to the history of film and television in the UK, and makes available over 650 hours of moving image material entirely free of charge to users in UK schools, universities, colleges, public libraries and other educational establishments.
From May 2010, Screenonline features a special section focused on the history of party election broadcasts, including a selection of digitised broadcasts from the main parties spanning more than half a century.
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