Just under 3 million people watched the leaders’ debate last night, the biggest audience for any election debate held in Australia. A total of 2.33 million watched on Nine and the ABC in the metro markets, a further 451,000 watched in the bush and more than 125,000 watched on pay TV.

That beats the 2004 audience by miles mainly because the ABC audience was 650,000 higher due to smarter programming this time round. And the Nine Network went some way to rehabilitating its wounded news and current affairs reputation with the “wormed” edition of 60 Minutes, which scored the biggest audience for the debate and demonstrated that Australians overwhelming want the worm.

60 Minutes was watched by 1.422 million people across the country, placing it fourth overall on the night, and a further 451,000 watched in regional areas. The ABC’s non-wormed broadcast was watched by 909,000, which was a huge improvement on the 242,000 who watched in 2004 when the head of ABC TV at the time, Sandra Levy, refused to air the debate live and programmed it at 10pm. That short-sighted approach was rejected by viewers last night.

Sky News, which provided the host, David Speers (who didn’t do badly for his first ever go at a gig like this), averaged 126,000 people, with 64,000 in the five major metro market. The verdict part of the program averaged 121,500. The debate programs were the highest rating programs on pay TV yesterday, another sign that there is interest in this election.

For the first 45 minutes of the broadcast Seven’s National Bingo Night had more viewers (it was the most watched program last night with 1.56 million, while Idol averaged 1.357 million and was beaten by the debate). But from 8.15pm, the worm captured top spot and held it until the broadcast finished just after 9pm. The highest audience was around 1.622 million between 8.45 and 9pm.

The fact that Nine showed the worm, and then battled to keep the program to air despite loss of signal caused by censorship from the National Press Club will help restore the network’s self-induced loss of prestige in this area.

Ray Martin also looks sounder in something like this than lightweight personality interviews on 60 Minutes which do nothing for his credibility. Martin’s comments about censorship resonated with the audience and generated lots of positive reaction this morning.

So did Laurie Oakes’ comments on Today. If it is true that the ABC was directed (they produced the coverage) to shoot Oakes’ from behind and not to camera then the Press Club is guilty of a level of oafishness that ought to see it ignored in future debates.

The mostly newspaper run group didn’t have the guts to stand up to the Prime Minister. It wouldn’t have tolerated the imposition of similar conditions in any newspaper interview with Howard or Rudd, so why cave in to a bunch of political fixers and hacks on behalf of TV?

Oakes got it right this morning: “With a name like National Press Club, you’d think it would be out there defending the free press and the rights of the media. The Press Club was started by journalists but it’s become a haven for PR people, log-rollers (and) real estate agents. It’s forgotten what it’s supposed to stand for. They should be condemned.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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