U.K. political debate is TV ratings success

As ITV shares hit year-high after Goldman Sachs report

LONDON -- Almost 10 million viewers tuned in to watch ITV1 make U.K. political history Thursday night with the broadcast of the first election debate between the leaders of the three political parties.

The news came as ITV shares hit a year-high on the back of a positive investment report by Goldman Sachs.

The live televised debate was the first in a series of three -- with the remaining two to be broadcast by the BBC and Sky. It followed the familiar U.S. style of each party leader standing at a podium and answering questions from a live audience, with the debate moderated by political anchor Alastair Stewart.

An average of 9.4 million viewers watched the 90-minute show, which kicked off at 8.30 p.m., with a peak of 10.3 million tuning in to watch the final session. The broadcast won a 37% audience share, making it the most-watched primetime show Thursday night.

British audiences are entirely new to the spectacle of the three political leaders taking each other on in a public forum, with spats between them usually restricted to the more traditional political theater of Prime Minister's Question Time, which is held in the House of Commons.

Broadcasters have long urged leaders to engage in such televised election debates, but previous Prime Ministers including Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have always resisted.

The spectre of a close election result which may lead to a hung Parliament seems to have persuaded Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Conservative Leader David Cameron and Liberal Party leader Nick Clegg to bring their debate into the open.

ITV director of television Peter Fincham hailed the ratings as a success for the broadcaster, which has been boosted also by positive investor sentiment leading to an uptick in its share price.

"This was a moment of broadcasting history -- a television first which gripped ITV viewers throughout the entire 90 minutes as the party leaders engaged in lively debate, answering the questions which really matter to the British public," Fincham said.

"We're delighted that so many people tuned in to watch -- it is a clear signal that there is a real appetite for the public to see and hear those vying to lead the country debate the big issues. Televised election debates are surely here to stay."

ITV shares hit a year-high of 69 pence ($1.00) Friday morning on a confidence boost from a report from Goldman Sachs, which forecast that ITV's revenue would grow by 10% in 2010.