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May 05 2010

General election 2010: TV channels plan hi-tech coverage

BBC constructs massive 'coliseum' set, while rivals also plan touchscreens and graphics to display possible hung parliament

Following the success of the leaders' debates, broadcasters are preparing for the most extensive and hi-tech general election coverage ever on Thursday night.

The BBC in particular has pulled out all the stops for its election night programme, with a "coliseum" – a two-tier set constructed from hundreds of scaffolding poles in BBC Television Centre.

Tension was high when I was allowed onto the set yesterday for the last rehearsal before Thursday night's marathon live broadcast.

Surrounded by miles of cabling and buzzing with more than 100 crew and journalists under black blankets covering the "coliseum" poles, the set includes a giant "swingometer", which Jeremy Vine was examining closely with technicians.

To his right is a big results touchscreen operated by Emily Maitlis and above them all on the top tier will be Jeremy Paxman, interviewing guests from on high.

David Dimbleby anchors the whole thing in the middle and was an oasis of calm when I saw him, running through his notes as young producers in jeans and beanie hats frantically raced around.

The BBC is understood to have a general election budget of about £10m. ITV, with less than £2m, has a set that is a more intimate affair in a green-painted studio a fifth of the size, featuring a Spooks-style touchscreen in the centre for Alastair Stewart, virtual battlegrounds – including one recently commissioned for the Liberal Democrats following their surge in the polls – and ITV's new version of a swingometer, dubbed "Flo".

Flo shows three connected glass pots with red-, blue- or yellow-coloured paint that will fill up and drain down depending on the flow of the parties' fortunes.

Despite having around a tenth of the technicians of the BBC, ITV's coverage from ITN includes ground-breaking gizmos devised by a team of just four led by head of computer graphics whizz Ian White, such as a holographic wall showing the House of Commons.

The broadcaster also has two big touchscreens that co-host Julie Etchingham will use to show voting share that are, rather charmingly, stuck together with sticky tape, though viewers will not be able to see, as it will be covered up by a computer image.

ITV has about 700 people working on its coverage, which will include a big party at County Hall hosted by Mary Nightingale.

Sky News will be offering UK viewers general election coverage in high definition for the first time and is at about 100 locations around the country.

John McAndrew, the Sky News Decision Time executive producer, said: "We've got more people out in the field than ever before in the constituencies as that will be the story, rather than what's in the studio."

In a move of which Nick Clegg might approve, Sky, the BBC and ITV are working together for the first time on an exit poll and sharing some cameras at the leaders' counts and some helicopter shots.

All the broadcasters stress there will fewer gimmicks this election – apparently the lessons have been learnt from Vine's ill-advised comedy cowboy routine during the US presidential election in 2008 – and the emphasis is on "clarity".

"There's almost an arms race about how you cover election programmes. People are not knocked out any more if they've seen things like Avatar. I think what people want is clarity," said Craig Oliver, the BBC's election night editor.

Deborah Turness, the ITV News editor, said the complicated political story with the potential for a hung parliament has had an impact on how television has covered the election.

"The story has demanded we get more people in more places. The way the campaign has been we've got more people out than last time, more dishes etc," Turness added.

Presenters including the BBC's Dimbleby and ITV's Stewart and Etchingham are steeling themselves for marathon stints in front of the camera.

BBC1 and ITV1 also have plans to clear out their daytime schedules on Friday – even popular shows such as Loose Women – if the outcome of the election is still uncertain.

Both have scheduled their Election 2010 programmes to run from 9.55pm on Thursday night to 6am the following morning. BBC1's Breakfast Election 2010 Special will then run from 6am until 2pm on Friday, ahead of a 45 minute news bulletin.

ITV1 plans to go over to GMTV as normal between 6am and 9.25am, featuring election coverage, before Katie Derham pickes up the baton for more Election 2010 between 9.25am and 10.30am.

The network is then scheduled to revert to its normal daytime line-up, starting with This Morning and Loose Women – depending on the outcome of the election.

"We could be here until 6pm Friday," said Oliver, although he stressed Dimbleby will get a break when BBC Breakfast airs.

Etchingham said: "I'm due to go until 9am and then do News at Ten that night."

A veteran of general election nights, Stewart concluded: "It can't not be interesting, whatever the outcome. It's too close to call but it's going to be an historic election."

Perhaps the only thing the broadcasters can predict is the inevitable complaints from some viewers about their regular programmes being disrupted.

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