Driven to distraction

Election views - TV

''If you build it, they will come," was the philosophy that underpinned Kevin Costner's New-Agey film Field of Dreams 16 years ago. The question now is what happens if you throw an election and nobody votes. And if the politicians are worried, the TV journalists are terrified. The fear of viewer apathy has driven television to distractions.

They are everywhere. Newsnight has vacated its usual set and huddles in the allotment used by the Newsnight Friday-night reviewers, as though the election would be more palatable if viewed as a cultural event. ITV's theatre of news has been replaced by a brightly lit theatre of politics. Most barmily of all, the best political programme on television, BBC1's This Week, known for its sly satire, has flipped into full-blown Comic Relief mode. Its new title sequence boasts the presenter, Andrew Neil, in an electric-blue smoking jacket miming the Peter Kay part in the "Amarillo" video. (Neil has said that his ambition is to anchor an election results marathon: this bit of film is the moment that ensures he never will.)

In the past, such gimmicks have been reserved for Peter Snow and the night itself, and it is a defensible proposition that television should long ago have made an effort to slick up the campaign. Some of the tricks this time, however, look like desperation. ITV's lunchtime news has hired Professor Geoffrey Beattie, the shrink from Big Brother, to analyse politicians' body language. (Recently he diagnosed from Michael Howard's finger-wagging that he suffered from "anger issues".) On BBC2, the midday Daily Politics has an "Ask Daisy" segment in which a "personality" - Barry Norman for example - is invited to fox Neil's obviously pre-prepared co-presenter Daisy Sampson with a political poser. Sky News has "worm polls", in which viewer appreciation of political speeches squiggles across a graph, and its Boulton Factor has celebs holding forth on what they would do if they were PM. But none of the above has so far shifted Sky's on-screen "interest index" upward from its base in the minus-thirties.

With the big parties abandoning their campaign buses this time, there are still further opportunities for messing around. BBC News 24 has converted a double-decker into a mobile studio. The Politics Show's Max Cotton, making slow progress on a barge from Oldham to Birmingham, is talking to the canal's maggot danglers. Only Michael Crick - that genetic freak, an investigative reporter with a sense of humour - manages to make his mode of transport, the Newsnight helicopter, seem both fun and functional by beating Blair and Howard to the high streets where they had hoped no national press reporter would track them down.

In its way, it is all very impressive, particularly given that if you want issue-led tripartite panel discussions, ITV's Jonathan Dimbleby is serving them up. But I am also reminded of those teachers who try too hard to bring their subjects "alive" and thereby merely confirm the class's suspicion that they died long ago. The funny thing is that this is the closest race since 1992. If the media stopped declaring the contest already won, a real race it might yet become. Then we'd be interested.

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