Television coverage of the General Election failed to appeal to women and first-time voters in a year when interest among all potential viewers sunk to an all-time low.
Mirroring the low 59.5 per cent voter turnout in the June election, 41 per cent of those asked said they were not very interested and 29 per cent were completely uninterested in watching campaign coverage, according to new research by the Independent Television Commission.
Attempts by broadcasters to appeal to women failed to have an impact, with a third claiming they were completely uninterested in election coverage in 2001.
This year, 40 per cent overall said they switched channels to avoid watching campaign coverage, while professional males over 65 registered the most interest in election programmes.
The figures will be a disappointment to the BBC, which has already announced a review of its political coverage. It had set out to engage more women and ethnic minorities.
Despite television being the main source of political information among those aged 16 to 34, nearly half of that age group said they switched over to avoid election programmes.
A quarter of the 3,000 viewers who took part in the research said they paid no attention at all to coverage, compared with 6 per cent in the previous election.
With so little interest in the lead-up to polling day, election night audiences reached an all-time low, with an average of 4.9 million staying up to watch the BBC, compared with 2.7 million who chose ITV.
Election night audiences have been in decline since 1992, when 11.8 million watched BBC1, falling to 6.5 million in 1997. ITV’s 7.7 million in 1992 fell to 3.7 million five years later.
Perception in 1997 that not enough time was devoted to coverage of the different parties’ policies did not alter in June 2001, with two in 10 viewers again making the same criticism.
Interviews with politicians on BBC1 were judged to be "about right" by 51 per cent, the same number as in 1997, while 15 per cent said interviewers were "too soft" on both the BBC and ITV. Viewers were slightly less satisfied with ITV – 39 per cent thought interviews were pitched at the right level compared to 41 per cent in the previous election.
Although the report’s author, Jane Sancho, acknowledged that viewing figures reflected the belief that the result was a foregone conclusion, she concluded that broadcasters "must be able to find new ways of engaging audiences".
Suggestions in the report to improve coverage include establishing a single channel devoted to the election.
There was also a desire for more debate and discussion, with a three-way debate between party leaders suggested. Broadcasters have argued in the past that party leader debates would be key to stimulating interest in the electoral process.
By Julie Tomlin