the dial turns spur the worm; the worm turns, spurns

This is a good background piece on those “squiggly lines” that showed up on CNN during the debates, but I would have liked to have learned more about previous uses of so-called “dial testing” in election coverage. The feature is novel to most of us Americans – unlike after-the-fact focus groups, which have been around a while – but the worldly commenters at Crooked Timber* point out that Australian television has been using a similar feature for some time.

Over there it’s called “the worm”; it even has a wikipedia entry. And in October 2007 it was involved in a bit of controversy:

Australian PM John Howard has denied involvement in a decision to ban a graphic that tracks audience opinion during a live TV election debate.

Critics accused Mr Howard of coercing the host, the National Press Club, to ban the use of the “worm”.

Channel Nine’s feed was cut 25 minutes into the debate between Mr Howard and the opposition leader Kevin Rudd.

The controversy has eclipsed the issues under discussion, which included the economy and Australia’s role in Iraq.

Glad to see the US is not the only country with the proper sense of priorities. So how did the debate turn out?

Channel Nine switched first to an ABC and then a Sky News feed, and superimposed the worm without any disruption to its coverage.

According to the worm, Mr Rudd was the overall winner of the debate. Opinion in Australia is divided on whether the worm really has any impact on voters.

Of course, it’s not just a question of whether the worm has an impact on voters; there’s also the question of how well it represents voters. Howard went on to lose the election. Maybe it was a coincidence.

 
*I endorse the suggestion that the networks keep up the squiggly lines for the post-debate coverage. And for other programming.

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