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News priorities: Why is the US not for us?

Simon Enright

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It is still more than ten months until the US presidential election. But for some of us the obsession began last year. It is like being a fan of a reality TV show. One that is all too real.

We've got to know the candidates. Watched them rise and fall. Seen YouTube star Herman Cain take the campaign by storm, until the family man disappeared amid allegations of affairs and secret payments. And then there was Michele Bachmann, chair of the Tea Party caucus, a rising star who disappeared in Iowa, quite literally dancing from the stage.

But, while devotees of this reality show might have top of our bookmarks and NPR's [National Public Radio] Morning Edition on podcast, as journalists we must face the fact that our passion is not shared by the British audience.

BBC research people point out that US politics generally attracts only niche interest in the UK. Their audience measure called 'engagement' gives an all-stories average of 36%. For US politics that score is just 23%.

President Obama was an exception. When he was elected engagement jumped to 44%, but it's been declining ever since. By the US mid-term elections in November 2010 - when Obama did badly - it was down to just 12%, an all-time low.
Is that surprising? Even in the United States the race to become Republican nominee saw CNN viewing figures substantially down on four years ago. Fox News saw an increase in audience from last time, but that's because all of its audiences are up: the Iowa caucus was just an average night on prime time for the channel.

But this is still one of the most important elections in the world. It will see the selection of the 'leader of the free world'. Someone who commands the world's most powerful army; can order a killing in far off Pakistan and watch on TV as those orders are carried out. Or can plunge the world into recession. 

Surely our audience should care? And surely it is important to explain to them what is going on?

Time, at least, is in our favour. Just like with reality TV, as the contest reaches its conclusion audience interest will increase. The field will also narrow. With so many potential Republican candidates it's difficult to convince an audience to invest in understanding any individual when next week they could be gone.

Finally the arguments will sharpen and become clearer. We can then explain what difference one candidate might make over another. That will interest our audience - even if very few will have a chance to influence the result.

Simon Enright is the assignment editor in the BBC's World Affairs Unit. He was deputy editor of US Election in 2008.

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