Bill Ralston: Who won election night's onscreen battle?

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The media was out in force on election night. Photo / Chris Loufte
The media was out in force on election night. Photo / Chris Loufte

Lights. Camera. Inaction. Election night television coverage usually struggles to deliver any substance for at least the first hour due to the insurmountable problem that the returning officers have only just begun their count when the programmes roar into life at 7pm.

Last night was no exception, although the helpful release of early votes in the electoral referendum allowed the assembled teams of commentators to pontificate for several minutes on the figure of 53% in favour of keeping MMP. Indeed, it was remarkable how much time could be spent laboriously analysing a number that the rest of us saw and comprehended within a second or two of it popping up in the onscreen graphic.

Still, that is what election night telly is all about, groups of men and the occasional woman sitting around a table telling us things we already knew and reading us figures that we can see for ourselves.

TV One's ringmaster Mark Sainsbury had given his moustache ends an extra tweak and rubbed his hands with glee at the thought of another three or four hours of live television.

Across on TV3 an ebullient John Campbell appeared to have had one coffee too many as he bounced and ricocheted into the evening.

TV One definitely won the numbers battle when it came to the commentators arrayed around its huge desk, it looked like a meeting of the United Nations Security Council and was just as verbose. So much so that it cut away to more panellist verbiage seconds before Act's Don Brash completed his act of political suicide that he first began several months ago.

This led to endless confusion for those who later swapped over to TV3 and found its panel sagely commenting on the Brash resignation that TVNZ somehow managed to miss despite having a small army of reporters and entire outside broadcast unit at Act headquarters.

Watching TV3 for a while something odd appeared to be happening to its commentator panel. Linda Clark and Paul Henry were never on the set at the same time which suggested either some kind of personal enmity between the two or Henry was carrying kryptonite in his chalk striped suit pockets that forced superwoman Clark to flee every time he approached. Whatever it was it didn't seem to affect the avuncular Chris Trotter who, although a life long strident leftist, seemed to gleefully relish the night's implosion of the Labour Party.

Those of us who tired of the droning commentary and hit the mute button quickly discovered that TV3 had won the graphics battle. Its onscreen figures were easily digested and gave a clear indication of who was leading in what seat and by how much, the percentage of party vote and the likely number of parliamentary seats accruing to each party.

TV One's baseline graphic kept incessantly flicking between percentages and numbers of seats at such a rapid pace some viewers could have been forgiven for thinking National had picked up 60% of the vote and won 48 seats.

Viewers were not the only ones who tired of the circus. At one point TV One reporter Greg Boyed seemed to have forgotten he was part of the mainstream media live on camera and, instead, appeared to be idly tweeting on his phone.

Television really only comes into its own when the leaders arrive to give their speeches, although Act leader-in-waiting John Banks appeared to have lifted his election night oration directly from a Monty Python script. John Key's victory address wandered off for a while into a funeral eulogy for the defeated Phil Goff.

For his part Goff showed plenty of dignity, talking of victory coming another day - a day which he, himself, is unlikely to see as Labour leader.

After four weeks of partisan rivalry and argument it was a curious thing to see an outbreak of good manners. Winston Peters, of course, could be counted on being the exception to that, making a graceless cameo appearance at his own headquarters before dumping his supporters to head off somewhere else.

His long delayed appearance did give rise to one of the better lines of the evening when John Campbell asked reporter Rachel Smalley Winston's whereabouts. She replied to the effect that she had passed a bar on the way into the venue and she would check to see if he was there.

Wherever Winston Peters was hiding and wherever he subsequently went, I suspect the effect of the evening's long drawn out coverage was to drive the rest of us to drink.

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