July 2024

Leaders debates return to dock10 for 2024 General Election

Leaders debates return to dock10 for 2024 General Election

With John OShaughnessy, Head of Technology Operations, dock10

Media City's dock10 was, once again, host to a pair of crucial leaders' debates during the 2024 General Election campaign.

The studio hosted the very first head-to-head debate of the campaign, between incumbent PM Rishi Sunak and his would-be replacement Kier Starmer, as well as a seven-way face off between representatives of the biggest parties in the election.

The studio is no stranger to hosting the nation's aspiring leaders. It has previously hosted five ITV Leaders' Debates: one each for the general elections of 2015 and 2017, and three in 2019 – firstly the Conservative Party leaders' debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, then a General Election head-to-head between Johnson and Labour's Jeremy Corbyn, and finally a seven-way debate between all the main parties.

So to the 2024 campaign, when a peak audience of 5.5m, and average of 5.1m across all devices, tuned in on June 4 to watch Sunak v Starmer: The ITV Debate, a slightly tetchy affair hosted by ITV News anchor Julie Etchingham. Etchingham said following the event: "There's no two ways about it, the tension not just in the half an hour ahead of that debate but in the whole debate studio for the whole of the day before we went on air was palpable with both teams."

Nine days later the second, multi-party debate featured the Conservatives' Penny Mordaunt, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper, Plaid Cymru leader Rhun ap Iorwerth, Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer and Reform UK's Nigel Farage. It was again moderated by Etchingham.

Along with the television studios, across the two debates held at Media City, dock10 provided staff and technical facilities, including diverse transmission and connectivity lines, to ITV and third party providers, and ancillary facilities including production offices, green room, audience handling and seating and dressing rooms.

The allocation of dressing rooms was the source of a surprising conundrum for the dock10 team. With seven candidates and a host of different dressing rooms, some named after colours and some with numbers, how can you make sure everyone is happy with their lot? A lengthy debate took place, with ideas ranging from alphabetical allocation to attempting to match party colours up with dressing room colours, but nothing seemed to quite solve the problem. Who would want to be in a Star Dressing Room when their fiercest rival has landed a Super Star one? What if two politicians with a notorious dislike for each other found themselves as next-door neighbours?

In the end, it was handed to fate to decide, and the rooms were allocated in the same order as the lots that were drawn to decide the standing positions on stage. When ITV put out its press release noting that "standing positions for the debate have been decided, after lots were drawn," it might well have added "as have dressing rooms."

dock10 also provided bespoke and shared ‘pool’ feeds and communications to hubs across the Media City campus and to ITV's spin room, sited in the main ITV building on the opposite side of the Ship Canal and housing the press and candidate support teams.

dock10's total staff team numbered 56 for the one-on-one debate between the two main party leaders, and 70 for the seven-way version. This was made up of operational crew, technology team, back-office management, co-ordination and scheduling, audience handlers and local security.

Leaders debates return to dock10 for 2024 General Election

The numbers exclude ITV's own production staff and the multiple external teams of security personnel, since this already mammoth production task also had to be carried out in the midst of high-level security due the profiles of the debaters taking part.

The debates were held in a single studio – much to social media's delight, the same 7,642-sq ft HQ2 studio where Naked Attraction has previously filmed, although it was unrecognisable following its election makeover – with three associated galleries for production, lighting/vision and sound. All technical facilities were controlled through a master control room linked to two central technology areas, hosting 100+ racks of equipment.

PM Sunak's decision to call a surprise July election at short notice caught plenty of people by surprise, not least his own party and its opponents who had to scrabble to find candidates before the June 7 nomination deadline in seats where one had not yet been selected.

Tight deadlines are all in a day's work for the team at dock10, however: "We are used to working to late production requests and tight deadlines," said head of technology operations John O'Shaughnessy. "The hugely skilled team and highly flexible facilities enable us to achieve this. Having worked on many Leader's Debates for ITV, stretching back to 2015, as soon as we were aware of the election date we started to design and plan based on previous events. We engaged with the ITV production and news teams as soon as feasible and adjusted the plans to suit desired variations."

Leaders debates return to dock10 for 2024 General Election

The televised debates have become a key part of the UK electoral cycle since they were first introduced ahead of the 2010 General Election. Although this year's debates may not have seen a 2024 equivalent of the ‘Cleggmania’ that arose around that initial foray onto TV, leading to a surprise hung parliament and forcing eventual PM David Cameron to rely on the support of Nick Clegg and his 62 LibDem MPs to form a government, there have been plenty of talking points nonetheless. From healthcare to housing and rising rents to Rwanda, it's all been caught on camera and beamed into our living rooms on a regular basis.

For O'Shaughnessy, however, the only talking point that matters is that of a job well done: "The request to deliver within a few days, along with an already busy studio schedule over a half-term school period resulted in challenges over equipment and staffing resources," he admitted. "Both were accomplished through precise planning, organisation and a fantastic team effort."