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Party Election Broadcasts

TV political campaigns

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The television Party Election Broadcast (PEB) is now a standard feature of any British general election campaign, one we all take for granted, although the character and importance of the PEB has - like party politics more generally - changed radically since the BBC transmitted the first one in 1951.

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.

Public meetings continued to be held, but their importance declined after 1918 as the parties innovated. During the 1930s the Conservatives even employed a fleet of cinema vans to tour the country, presenting programmes of short comic films, cartoons and talks by party leaders to watching crowds. In the 1935 campaign these vans reached some 1.5 million people. This election also saw Stanley Baldwin and Clement Attlee deliver filmed appeals to the millions who went to the cinema, which supplemented press reports of speeches and the parties' broadcasts on BBC radio.

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.

When the first three PEBs were broadcast in 1951, there was just the one television service, transmitted to a mere 750,000 sets concentrated in middle-class homes in South East England. By the time of the 1964 election, however, there were nearly 13 million sets, meaning that virtually every family in Britain could be reached by a PEB. In fact, during the 1960s, 1970s and much of the 1980s television viewers found it hard to avoid them: PEBs were shown simultaneously across all three channels. There was no alternative other than to switch off the set.

At first PEBs were seldom treated very seriously by the parties, if only because so few voters possessed a set. Politicians looked on them as their chance to repeat in condensed form speeches they had already delivered on the radio or at public meetings. With no concession to the particular needs of the television form, they would simply talk directly at the camera, which would rarely move so as to give the viewer any relief from their unremitting gaze and often monotonous delivery.

A few politicians, however, soon appreciated that if the full potential of the PEB was to be exploited they had to learn from those who worked in television, particularly those used to making advertisements after ITV's arrival in 1955. This, they realised, was their one chance to directly appeal to many people who wouldn't necessarily watch the television news or read the political sections of the newspapers. For a long time, however, such forward-thinkers were in the minority; many in the Labour party, for example, were suspicious of selling socialism as if it was washing powder. Consequently, well into the 1980s PEBs were often serious and heavily fact-based - if nothing else it was cheaper to have a politician talk directly to the camera, something that also indulged their vanity.

Since then, however, the parties have taken PEBs more seriously, spending much more money on their production. This step-change in attitude is associated with the Conservatives' decision to employ advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi for the 1979 election. Since then the parties - following the advice of the experts - have increasingly focused on their leaders, easing out 'talking heads' in favour of almost soap opera representations stressing their human qualities more than their political skills. Nowadays, PEBs often tell dramatised stories in which politicians do not appear at all: indeed it is sometimes difficult to tell them apart from the programmes they fall in between.

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 Nineteen Eighty-Four. 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.

Some television producers, like Peter Bazalgette, the man who brought Big Brother (Channel 4, 2000-) to Britain, recently argued that now that each party has its own YouTube channel, PEBs had become redundant and proposed that if the parties wanted to make their case on television they should pay the commercial rate. That is the case in the United States, where the free-to-air PEB is an alien concept. As a result, US television channels make millions of dollars whenever there is an election, but access is restricted to those candidates with generous funds, and parties must spend an inordinate amount of time and effort raising cash.

In Britain, the parties already get into enough trouble raising money to fight elections - without access to the PEB, matters will probably get worse. Moreover, commercial advertising would prevent minor parties from having a chance to reach millions of voters. So, love them or loathe them - and allegedly many people have always made a cup of tea while they are on - it is unlikely that PEBs will disappear any time soon.

Further Reading
Cockerell, Michael, Live from Number Ten: The Inside Story of Prime Ministers and Television (Faber and Faber, 1988)

Philip Cowley and Steven Fielding

Philip Cowley is Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham; Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham

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