Thomas Sutcliffe: Broadcasters are all shook up as ITV's Elvis battles the BBC's excitable Tigger

Television Review
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The Independent Online

The anticipation among amateur psephologists had been intense. For the American presidential election Peter Snow had allowed himself to be squashed by a giant computer-generated image of the presidential helicopter - so what would Britain's most easily aroused pundit come up with for the general election? He promised he would be "pushing the frontiers of technology right to the extremes".

And he was true to his word. In the phoney war of election coverage - the long, aching hour and a half between the start of coverage and the first scrap of substantive information - Peter Snow and his pale imitations on other channels are the troops the broadcasters throw into the breach. True, every constituency has its graduate trainees and local reporters, chucking well-honed clichés into the yawning vacancy of hard fact ("It's going to be a long and interesting night", "no sign of champagne corks here"). The analysts have gathered in great, wheeling flocks - like vultures on a decomposing elephant. But for the moment it's really the graphics we're here for.

Early results were disappointing. Peter Snow emerged from a computer-generated No 10 to cue up a No 10 road race. On the other channel they unveiled a virtual House of Commons, virtually identical to the virtual House of Commons that Snow had just bounced around so Tiggerishly on the BBC. But as the evening wore on the wilder fringes of visual explication began to reveal themselves. For ITV Nick Robinson unveiled Elvis - the Election Visualiser - because, he said, the map needed to be "all shook up".

Snow hit back with a Three Party Battleground which hissed and whooshed like some Victorian pneumatics and, at a his command, the stylised manikin MPs flew across the room to embed themselves in the wall. Clearly, the graphics arms race had resulted in graphics so complicated that they will shortly need their own graphics to explain them. The BBC's set looked like the atrium of a provincial shopping mall - with a branch of Paxman's (Sardonic Detachment for the Gentry) on the ground floor and a Fiona Bruce (Career Woman Couture) on the mezzanine.

ITV had opted for a kind of Superman's Arctic Fortress look - all glacial blues and faceted shimmer. But whereas the BBC had stuck to political names for the guest list ITV had decided to add a touch of Hello! glamour to the occasion.

On a riverboat party on the Thames Joan Collins explained away her presence in a UKIP leaflet to Clive Anderson.

He supplied the pithiest soundbite of the early coverage. "It's an all-losers election," he suggested, unwittingly seconding what Shirley Williams had pointed out at length on the BBC - after the first exit polls suggested none of the parties would achieve their larger ambitions. An all-losers election had a ring to it - and it chimed with the faces of the party spokesmen, grey with fatigue and the dawning suspicion that the ball might bounce very unpredictably.

At midnight, though, the final score was a long way off and the only task was to say nothing with conviction. "We'll be back in a minute" said Jonathan Dimbleby, as ITV reached its first ad break, "but I promise you, you won't miss a thing". I'm not sure he realised how true his words were.