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The 6 biggest differences between UK and US TV election debates

Ahead of Trump versus Clinton, we compare the political clashes from both sides of the Atlantic

Published: Sunday, 9th October 2016 at 8:18 pm

There's no hiding it: US politics is very different from our own. While our cross-Atlantic cousins will debate over the exact repercussions of Obamacare, us Brits can expect to wade through the fallout of an MP duck-house scandal. The two barely compare.


In fact, politics is so much bigger in America than in Britain that we don’t often get to fairly size up the two. But as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton prepare for their first presidential debate tonight (2am, C4), we’ve got the perfect opportunity to pit the UK and the US on the same podium. And the results are pretty surprising.

So, without further ado, here are the biggest differences between the two nations' TV debates…

There’s a lot less on the screens in UK debates

We know you’ve already committed all the exciting 76 rules of the first UK television debates to memory, but we just want to draw your attention to rule 75 – you know, the one prohibiting broadcasters from running breaking news tickers over live coverage of the debate. That’s right, the rule that’s there to ensure broadcasters are as impartial as possible.

Well, it doesn't exist in the US. Freedom of speech trumps all. The result: watch a debate on the likes of CNN you'll be greeted with facts flying across the screen the entire way through.

For example, if a candidate talks about Iran, a small map of Iran will soon appear in the corner. And when the other says “my foreign policy is anchored on national security”, a huge quote box will show up on screen saying “my foreign policy is anchored on national security”. Then tweets about the debate, such as “I liked when he said ‘my foreign policy is anchored on national security’”, will pour into the bottom of the screen.

It's democracy at its most distracting.

Surprisingly, the audience in the US debates are much quieter

Although you’d imagine a cheering and jeering American crowd at the debates – perhaps one with a few foot-stamping ‘yee-haw’ cowboys firing revolvers into the air – the US audience mainly keeps schtum. The reason? They normally obey instructions to maintain quiet in order to allow the candidates to talk uninterrupted.

And, yes, the UK debates have the same rules to keep the spectators quiet. But in recent times British audiences have been more likely to raise a racket. Why? It’s simple: Nigel Farage. He’s challenged the studio audience specifically in recent times, most notably calling them “pretty left wing, believe me.”

However, if there's somebody in the US likely to cause the same reaction, it's probably Trump.

There are only two candidates in the American debates

While the last general election featured a seven-way Great British debate off, the US presidential clashes have only ever featured two presidential hopefuls. Think this is simply a reflection of the binary US political system? Hold your horses (and donkeys and elephants), there’s more to it than that. It is possible for more candidates to make an entrance – anyone scoring at least 15% in an average of five recent national polls will be allowed to participate.

But is it likely the US debates will have a third person on the platform anytime soon? In short: no. In a bit longer: no because the candidate behind Trump and Clinton, Gary ‘nope, never heard of him’ Johnson of the Libertarian party, polls only at about eight percent.

The US debates are filmed on even worse sets than the UK

Which is saying an awful lot if you think the first UK TV debate in 2010 was filmed in what looked like 1990s ITV gameshow studio. But you can’t watch an American debate without noticing it: their sets are blue, boring and very drab.

Maybe they can get away with it because most of the shots are centred from the shoulders up. But it's most likely because that’s what American audiences expect – the set featured in the 2012 debate between Romney and Obama is virtually identical to the one in the 1992 debate between George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton. That boring background is an institution.

Whereas on the other side of the pond, TV debates are still reasonably new. We don’t have an established set yet. And that's probably why Sky decided to host a debate on what looked like the transporter bay from Star Trek last year.

Some of the American debates are done on bar stools

British politicians could never ever get away with this. Mind you, the Americans don’t really, either. The so-called ‘town hall’ debates (traditionally the second televised clash between candidates) sees presidential hopefuls greeting every question by rising out of their chair in the style of Westlife during a key change.

Although the podium-less format’s only been tried a couple of times in the UK (both with Ed Miliband and David Cameron), both candidates haven’t yet appeared on the same platform yet. They have, however, had to share the stage with Jeremy Paxman, a much scarier opponent.

The UK ones are infinitely more awkward

You could blame this on the debates still finding their way through infancy in the UK. Or you could blame it on Gordon Brown. Actually, you could blame it on any British politician: from Ed Miliband’s stage trip last year, to Cameron’s stilted smiling throughout the first TV debate in 2010, all Brits just don’t look as comfortable as the Americans arguing on the box.

Why? It’s not in our political nature. While Trump performs to cheers in a stadium full of people, we're more likely to see Jeremy Corbyn shouting through a megaphone on top of a wheelie bin. We’re just not used to the glitz and glam of big stage politics. And we probably never will.


The First Presidential Debate starts 2am on Tuesday morning on Channel 4


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