The Turn of the Worm

There’s been much brouhaha about the pulling of Channel 9’s coverage of the Howard-Rudd debate because 9 insisted on showing the “uncommitted voters” responses to the debate in the form of the “worm”, a continuously updated graph of said responses, overlaid on the bottom of the image. This despite Howard’s setting it as a condition of the debate that the “worm” not be used.

My initial attitude to the worm when it first appeared an election or two ago, was that it was a trivialising distraction, intended simply to garner a bigger audience for 9. And it is that. From that consideration, though, there arise more questionable consequences. Channel 9 is making a T.V. show, and wants to apply some showmanship. There are time-honoured ways to tweak a T.V. show. If it’s a comedy, you add canned laughter. In other circumstances, you add applause. In the days of live broadcasts, the studio audience was told when to applaud, and, presumably, when to laugh. It was much harder work.

Which brings me to the worm. Devices like dubbed applause and laughter continue because they work. Their presence will predispose an audience to hearty approval or amusement to an extent that makes their continued use worthwhile. Not enough to save a flop, obviously. Will the worm, by the same token, influence the response of viewers? I don’t know. If it has no such effect, there’s no reason to restrict it. Let’s suppose, with, I imagine, John Howard, that it does exercise such influence. One question is then, Who controls it? This device comes from the stable that brings you such examples of journalistic excellence as 60 Minutes. The networks already exercise a great deal of power during election campaigns. In that light, an extension of their influence into the debate or debates may not seem worth worrying about. Nonetheless, however small the effect, I think it one our election campaigns can do without. Which is my answer to another question: Who cares?

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