And to showcase the sensation, we have, uniquely, the choice of Dimbleby or Dimbleby. At the BBC, David Dimbleby will be anchoring his fifth election night in succession. Over on ITV, his younger brother Jonathan will be making his debut in the same role.
Other choices would arguably have made more compelling television. Jeremy Paxman as anchor would have infused the BBC's programme with a potential for danger and dispute that might have kept us on the edge of our seats, regardless of the results. Jon Snow, who hosted ITV's election special in 1992, has a wit and a wry political nous which may be missed. But neither of them has what a Dimbleby can provide.
Thirty-two years ago their father, Richard, died of cancer at the age of 52. About the only thing to be said for dying in one's prime is that you may be very genuinely missed. Dimbleby, in particular, seemed irreplaceable: in at the birth of the televising of such national events as the state opening of Parliament and the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, he quickly became a sort of unique national chorus (in the ancient Greek sense). People say now that he was unctuous or obsequious or pompous, but such judgements miss the point. He was just inevitable, with his massive bulk, his great bald head, his keen eye for poignant detail, his grave delivery.
So it is piquant that 30 years on, after all the vicissitudes that have engulfed broadcasting and in the midst of the Birtian reforms that are transforming the corporation beyond recognition, there is still a place for not one Dimbleby but two in the hot seat when the really big national events roll around.
For David Dimbleby, on his fifth general election as anchor and his ninth in all, it will be simply a case of the old pro going through his paces, once again making it look as easy as winking. For Jonathan, who, at the age of 52, is six years David's junior, it will be much more of a gamble. Both brothers attended Charterhouse School, but while David went through Oxford and straight into the BBC, reporting his first general election in 1964, Jonathan, a champion show-jumper in his youth, decided to go into farming. But halfway through agricultural college he changed his mind, studied philosophy at London University, then joined Radio Bristol as a reporter in 1969.
In the past Jonathan has always been described as a "radical", in contrast to his more straightforwardly right-wing brother. Jonathan's alleged friendship with Arthur Scargill is probably the most scandalous taint ever to attack the Dimbleby family name. However, that's all safely in the past now: his journalist wife Bel Mooney's involvement with anti-bypass protesters sits pretty easily with Jonathan's presidency of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, and the likes of William Waldegrave and Chris Patten are now spoken of as friends. His official biography of Prince Charles, despite its broaching of the royal adultery taboo, confirmed that the Establishment is as safe in his hands as it is in David's.
What both Dimblebys have to offer, in essence, is the same thing their father offered: a flattering mirror for Middle England - well-bred without being grand, affluently plump without being flashy, small "c" conservative without being wedded to the Tories. Whichever party wins this election, it will be a conservative victory; and on both main channels a conservative will be there to announce it.
IT IS the elder brother who will have the bigger plum. Election night is one of the remaining bastions of the BBC's domination of current affairs which Richard Dimbleby (the original presenter of Panorama) came to symbolise. Peter Horrocks, the Newsnight producer who is responsible for the election- night special, and his team, have pulled out all the stops to make sure their hegemony continues.
"Election night is a very big night for the country and for the BBC," Horrocks says, "and we've got to do everything we can to report it fairly and quickly, but we've also got to put on a big show. We've got a big studio that is normally used for light-entertainment shows and it has to be done with that kind of chutzpah because many people turn on and watch who would never normally watch a political show. So it's big, it's colourful, it's exciting, but it's also extremely practical."
The circular space of the studio has been compared to a gladiatorial arena, and with Jeremy Paxman installed on his own platform within it - "interrogating politicians," in Horrocks's words, "as to why they've done so badly"- the analogy may have a point. The general idea is to provide, in the high-adrenalin mood of the studio, with researchers and gofers dashing back and forth and a hubbub of telephones and computers and producers in view, a sort of objective correlative for the polling data that will be flooding into the studio.
"It's an election which the BBC bases in the studio," says Horrocks, "but the election is actually happening out in the 659 constituencies around the country. You've got to get a sense of that, so we have more outside-broadcast cameras than other broadcasters, more cameras than we've had in previous years: because of the possibility of there being a big Labour victory, the potential for lots of seats to change hands, we need to be able to cover all those. For the first time, we'll be displaying them on a huge video display behind David in which we'll see 10 different OBs [outside broadcasts] at the same time. So there'll be a sense of busyness, of things going on all the time."
Beyond scale and technical resources, another great advantage of the BBC's for election night is the experience of its team. Dimbleby, Paxman and Peter Snow are, according to Horrocks, "pre-eminent in their field". Snow seems to have been playing with his swingometer since most of us were in short trousers, and manages that rarest trick, of combining authority and enthusiasm. This year the swingometer has gone virtual and is to be augmented by a new set of graphic toys, which may include an animated graphic of the Tory battlebus, first tried out during the coverage of the Wirral by-election in February.
Jeremy Paxman will doubtless be fulfilling his usual function as a safety valve for the public's indignation, tempting the first really bad loser to land a punch on his big chin. But Dimbleby's role is the key one, and one of the toughest in television current affairs.
"It's his job to tell the story," says Horrocks. "He gives all the results, the instant updates, he does the quick-reactive interviews that tell the story ... just conveying the information to the audience is a fantastically complicated and difficult thing to do, and Dimbleby's very experienced at it. He's got at least half a dozen people who can speak to him, he's got 10 computer screens in front of him, and he has to take in this information and make sense of results that are flowing in every six or seven seconds at the busiest times. You're trying to do an interview, you're trying to take all that in, you're trying to assess the significance of things and I'm talking to him all the time. Doing that flawlessly, making an audience feel comfortable about it and helping them to understand what's going on, isn't something that's given to everyone. And having done it a number of times, clearly people get better at it."
ITN's big challenge is to catch-up, and they have a lot of ground to cover. Already in 1992 the BBC had settled on the studio spectacular approach, which served them well in fostering a sense of occasion big enough to keep the programme going until the early morning. ITV, on the other hand, made do with a nondescript studio that would have been better suited to a regional news show. The biggest gimmick was a virtual reality House of Commons, its seats dyed red, blue, green, etc, as the results came in. The unfortunate consequence was that the virtual set seemed more concrete than the real one, further damaging the programme's rather inadequate presence.
ITV has made two big changes to remedy the defects. It's converted the high, top-lit atrium of ITN's sleek London headquarters into a special studio for election night. Like the BBC's, ITV's coverage will now be anchored in a fairly impressive slab of non-virtual reality. The space is long and deep and narrow, and with the light of day so high above it feels, in the flesh, like being at the bottom of a fish tank. On camera, of course, that claustrophobia will be absent and the studio should approximate to the busyness and glamour of the BBC's. And in one sense it will outdo it: for the first time ever in this country, ITV will host a slice of the general public for the duration of the election-night programme, a scientifically selected 50-person slice of the equally representative audiences which have appeared on Sue Lawley's election specials over the past weeks.
How the public might be woven into the programme will be a major challenge for producer Nigel Dacre, because after 1am the results come in so thick and fast that it is hard to see how the relatively sluggish pace of vox- pop interrogation can be accommodated. Dacre sees most involvement of the studio audience coming before midnight and then again after 3am, "when the pace slows down a little".
And the other big change is the acquisition of Jonathan Dim-bleby. ITV has not fully recovered from the loss of stature inflicted by the retirement of Sir Alastair Burnet, who hosted his last election-night programme in 1987. The BBC's intensely competitive Peter Horrocks argues that "ITV's biggest problem is that their presenters aren't established ITN presenters who are renowned for doing election programmes; they've had to get together a team to do something which they don't normally do."
It's true up to a point. ITV does have the massively experienced and respected Michael Brunson, ITN's political editor since 1986 and a reporter with the company since 1968. Alastair Stewart, however, on his third election, is an unconvincingly lightweight answer to Peter Snow, while Sue Lawley's election experience is strictly limited.
So a terrifying weight of responsibility for making the whole thing swing lies with Jonathan Dimbleby. A crueller contest of siblings could hardly be devised. Both brothers are in the final throes of making major television programmes and accompanying books on grand imperial themes: Jonathan on Hong Kong, David on India. Both have done big one-on-one television interviews with all three party leaders in the run-up to the election. Now they will be pitted against each other in the most arduous marathon that television current affairs has devised.
! ITV's Thursday-night election special will run from 10pm to 4am. BBC1's election coverage will begin at 9.55pm and run through to 5.53am.