Saturday night, as we all know, is a big night for our politicians.

It’s either joy or despair as voters hand the candidates and their parties a definitive rating.

The TV ratings battle is just as intense.

Like politics – there are winners and losers, and losing hurts.

Professional pride is dented and so is a network’s confidence if viewers vote with their remotes.

Way back, it was hardly a contest – TV One inevitably cruised to victory on the back of a highly-resourced programme that it had started planning two years earlier.

Then, TV3 with John Campbell at the helm began to close the gap with lively, fast-paced election night programmes that included some pre-recorded satirical items.

In the last two elections, the ratings have been neck and neck in the all-important 25 to 54 age group.

This Saturday will be interesting – both One and Three are under financial pressure, and it is no longer a two-horse race. RNZ is lining up with a full-on television broadcast. It is likely to be the TV equivalent New Zealand First; it won’t win but it will influence the outcome.

NZME is also trying to get over the threshold with a major production that it will live-stream to its NZ Herald website.

Three on Three

For the first-time in six elections, TV3 will be going to air without John Campbell. Campbell lives for election nights, his encyclopaedic knowledge of every electorate in the country and his ability to freewheel his way through a five-hour broadcast made him a unique asset.

This time, with Campbell now at RNZ, Three will use the trio of Duncan Garner, Patrick Gower and Lisa Owen.

Garner, the host of Three’s breakfast show AM is a former political editor and has similar depth of knowledge to Campbell. Owen is a “swot” and will be across everything and Gower, who did a good job hosting the network’s only leaders debate, will provide colour and insight gained from being on the road with English and Ardern.

If they gel, it will be a formidable team.

Last election, to get the jump on TV One, Three spent up on fancy “augmented reality” graphics to display and explain the live results.

These 3D graphics appear as if they are physically present in the studio and the presenter is creating them at a wave of a hand.

In fact, they are generated by a computer and are not “real”. The technology is expensive and complex. Getting the most out of these hi-tech graphics is tricky and this time Three has reverted to a standard graphics package. It’s a backward, if understandable, move.

Ironically, TVNZ is going in the other direction.

One goes 3D

One has splashed out on the latest 3D package and if the producers and presenters can make it work properly, it will give TVNZ a more sophisticated “look” than Three.

One’s coverage will be anchored by Mike Hosking, Corin Dann, Simon Dallow and Hilary Barry.

Dann and Dallow will concentrate on the results as they come in, while in another part of the studio Hosking and Barry will interview a panel of commentators.

The introduction of Barry is interesting. The former TV3 journalist was regularly seen in the field on election nights for her old outfit.

She will have done her homework and will been keen to make a mark on Saturday night and bring some of her trademark humour which is often lacking from TVNZ shows.

Despite what she says, Barry can hardly be happy with the way her under-performing Breakfast show is travelling.

RNZ ramps up

For the first time, RNZ will mount a serious challenge to the TV networks, and it has some serious firepower.

Campbell, Morning Report host and ex-TVNZ political editor Guyon Espiner, RNZ’s current political editor Jane Patterson and Māori Affairs correspondent Mihi Forbes will be on-air at 6.55pm.

The show will be screened on RNZ’s freeview channel and Face TV on the Sky TV platform.

The state broadcaster has done a deal with the University of Auckland to use its TV studio, which has a three-camera set up.

Espiner will run a panel of analysts from there while Campbell will anchor from the rather basic Checkpoint studio in Auckland.

RNZ doesn’t have the technical capability to run a results ticker along the bottom of the screen like the TV networks and instead will use full-screen graphics to display results.

The programme won’t look as flash as One and Three’s, but RNZ has some experienced TV producers in its ranks now – led by ex-TV3ers Carol Hirschfeld, Tim Watkin, and Pip Keane. Expect them to make the most the resources they have.

Herald throws party

NZME is adopting a “come to us” strategy. It has invited 70 politically interested people to a party in the lounge on the ground floor of its Auckland headquarters.

The group will form the backdrop for a panel hosted by Heather du Plessis-Allan.

Produced by another ex-TV3 journalist Sarah Hall the coverage will be streamed live on the newspaper’s website.

A roving camera will record comment from the guests which include leading business figures, the Greens’ Chlöe Swarbrick, and the Herald’s witty and often acerbic writer Steve Braunias.

If the booze is flowing, this could be an entertaining watch – or a train wreck.

Māori TV

Māori TV will focus on the Māori seats and will use its relationship with Newshub to be live at 15 locations around the country.

Oriini Kaipara and Heta Gardiner will host the coverage and with the Māori Party fighting for its life against a resurgent Labour they won’t have to look far for drama – it will be close at hand.

The Analysts

This is a battle within a battle. Which programme has secured the best experts, the leading commentators?

Good insight and analysis is important in attracting the politically astute viewer. The field seems to be evenly spread.

Three looks strong with Matthew Hooton and Linda Clark in its line-up.

Hooton, on his day, is probably the best political analyst in the country.

One has plenty of heavyweights in ex-Labour Party office holders Mike Williams and Matt McCarten, former United Future leader Peter Dunne, and past National Party President Michelle Boag.

Hosking and Barry will need to make sure this group doesn’t get too ponderous and pontificating.

RNZ’s panel is heavy with former politicians in Russel Norman, Clayton Cosgrove, and Tau Henare. They are all “cut to the chase” types.

The Herald will rely on political scientist Jennifer Curtin and business-friendly political commentator, Fran O’Sullivan.

Māori TV will have the powerful combination of Mark Solomon and former co-leader of the Māori Party, Dame Tariana Turia.

Things to watch out for on the night

– One’s state-of-the-art graphics.

– Samantha Hayes versus Wendy Petrie going live from outside Jacinda Ardern’s house. Both will want to get a quick question in as the Labour leader departs for Party headquarters.

Who will be first to call the election?

The winner of this game dines out on it for the next three years.

My pick: Duncan Garner.

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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