As a contest of ideas and issues, it was fine. As a piece of television, it was dire.

Last night’s TVNZ’s leaders debate should have been spectacular. Rarely has the scene been so well set for a debate so eagerly anticipated.

For the first time, Bill English and Jacinda Ardern would go head to head, the controversy surrounding moderator Mike Hosking had turbo-charged the publicity, and there was even a sensational poll showing Labour ahead minutes before kick-off.

But somehow it fell flat.

Given TVNZ’s failing finances (yesterday it announced profits had dropped away to barely nothing) it was never going to splash out on a programme that would be the video equivalent of fish and chip paper the next day – but this a was a low budget affair, or even a no budget affair.

The production values were poor.

Maybe the producers were hoping for an intimate atmosphere, but the studio they chose was either too small or the wrong shape for a show like this.

The main cameras were sitting to the right of Mike Hosking’s shoulder. This made Ardern, who was positioned on the left, seem as if she was standing further back on the set than English.

She surely wasn’t and we must’ve been witnessing some sort of “optical illusion” but it wasn’t good.

And for the whole first segment, English was looking out to the right of the screen. He was either addressing the wrong camera, or the camera was in the wrong place.

This got sorted in the first commercial break but it shouldn’t have happened – was there no rehearsal?

But the big problem with the debate was that it lacked any sense of theatre or drama. The audience, small, mute and mainly sitting in the dark, might as well not have been there.

Three’s Patrick Gower has an opportunity to shine as moderator of the second leaders’ debate. Photo: Troy Rawhiti-Forbes

It’s true that you don’t want the audience interfering with the integrity of the debate or being noisy, but leaders often perform better when there is some human reaction to jokes or a point well scored.

This debate had zero atmosphere.

Humour was missing in action, partly due to a wooden performance by Hosking.

There was nothing wrong with his handling of the debate or his questioning of the leaders, but he seemed strangely gun shy.

Again, poor production values didn’t help him. His camera was positioned too low, giving him a jowly and tired appearance.

It was also a strange decision to have his autocue in shot. It was like some sort of bizarre product placement with the word “Autoscript” often in plain view on the monitor in front of the presenter.

Maybe the controversy over whether he should stand down, given his right-wing views, did affect Hosking after all.

There were a few moments, like when he held English to account for nine years of inaction on dirty rivers, when it seemed he might spark up the debate, but overall his trademark confidence wasn’t there.

English and Ardern are similar – they are both nice people and it showed. This contest needed a disruptor, and it didn’t have it.

This of course opens the door for Three and its moderator, Patrick Gower.

Normally, going second and being sandwiched between the two TVNZ debates (the first and the final) is a poor card to draw, but this time it might be an advantage.

Neither leader was a clear winner or loser last night, and suddenly the rematch has become more relevant.

Gower needs to be an energetic and slightly unpredictable presence when the leaders meet for round two in four days’ time.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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