Audience Members Have a Say at UK Election Debate

How can a venue shape civic engagement? At an election debate hosted by CNN at the McLaren Thought Leadership Centre, interaction was key.

CNN UK election debate

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour moderates a UK election debate at the high-tech McLaren Thought Leadership Centre.

Case Study:
 Studio audience members vote on debate topics with results displayed in real-time 
Country: U.K.
Debate: April 21, 2015 (aired April 24)

When CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour welcomed viewers to the network’s 2015 U.K. election debate, she noted that with her was “an esteemed panel of politicians” and “an audience who will no doubt tell them exactly what they think of the big issues at the heart of this election.”


She wasn’t overselling the audience’s role.

Airing two weeks before the May 7 election, the debate was held in the futuristic Thought Leadership Centre on the McLaren Technology Group campus in Woking, an hour outside London. From above, the Centre looks like a roulette wheel set into a green field. It doesn’t actually spin, but the interior is designed to create a 360-degree visual experience.

One hundred and thirty people, selected according to U.K. guidelines on politically balanced debate audiences, were seated in the round. All were equipped with individual iPads to cast votes during the debate, with the results displayed in real time on the wall surrounding them.

Giving voters the opportunity to weigh in via apps and social media during political debates has become more common. What is unusual is the degree to which instant audience feedback—requested multiple times on topics like immigration, the economy, and the European Union—shaped the conversation between Amanpour and the five politicians representing the leading parties.

Possibly the most remarkable aspect of the debate was how the venue itself was integral to the conversation.

Fast Cars, Thoughtful Debates

The McLaren Technology Group has its origins in a Formula One team founded by New Zealander Bruce McLaren, a race car driver and engineer who died in a crash in 1970. British businessman Ronald Dennis, now McLaren’s chairman and CEO, acquired the McLaren racing team, and the company expanded into car and precision manufacturing.

Today the Group includes a number of high-tech companies, including McLaren (F1) Racing, McLaren Applied Technologies, McLaren Marketing, and McLaren Automotive Limited. In 2004, Queen Elizabeth II attended the opening of the McLaren Technology Centre campus, designed by the architectural firm Foster + Partners. In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron did the honors, opening the McLaren Production Centre, a high-performance road car assembly facility.

In early 2015, CNN and McLaren entered into a multi-year partnership that involved the network becoming the McLaren-Honda partner for the 2015 Formula 1 season and use of the Thought Leadership Centre, the newest addition to campus headquarters, to produce programs that would be broadcast globally.

The U.K. debate was the first event under the new agreement; CNN has since hosted a look at world events over the past three decades and a discussion on climate change, ahead of the Paris 2015 Climate Conference.

The Centre was conceived as an interactive event space—a modern arena for global leaders to use advanced technology to communicate ideas. Built on two tiers, the facility has an auditorium on top (where the debate was held), and a theater space below, and is connected to the rest of the campus via a tunnel on which film and images can be projected.

Photos and design details are available at the websites of Cinimod Studio, which installed the integrated lighting and audio components, and Lucas, which handled the final finishes. The engagement company Concise explains the event app it created for McLaren, on which interactive content can be uploaded and branded.

No detail was left to chance. “We interrogated all of the seat’s functions until we were happy with the height, movement, and the manner in which it self-centered and levelled. We put these seats through the same level of evaluation that we use in testing our cars,” Dennis told a commercial interior magazine.

If James Bond called a meeting, it would be held here.

Prior to the U.K. election debate, Dennis noted the space offers “every single participant the opportunity to engage, direct, and communicate with every other person within the space.”

“For a broadcaster such as CNN,” Dennis added, “that provides a really exciting opportunity for a televised debate to differ from the norm. For the first time, the public is not only able to see and hear the discourse, they are also able to actively engage in the discussion and move it on themselves.”

Informed by Design

When CNN’s editorial team and engineers first visited the Thought Leadership Centre in early 2015, they were taken back by what the space afforded them both in terms of intimacy and technology, said Gill Penlington, director of news and event programming across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The seating, built into concentric circles, made the room feel warm and inclusive, even with high-tech gadgets at every desk. The politicians could be seated in the center with Amanpour, close to the audience. There would be no podiums or staging creating distance.

The iPads and the wall screen were motivators for making the debate as interactive as possible. In this video, CNN engineers explain how they customized the lighting and built an onsite control room. Once the votes were submitted, a graphics machine converted the data into images that appeared on the 360-degree screen, showing the results in real time.

“If you were to do this in a different space and try and buy 150 iPads, and hook them up to a screen, building a system that feeds into it, you could actually do it, but it would be clunkier,” said Penlington.

The debate included two types of digitally interactive questions. The first were prepared in advance. The editorial team knew there would be time for five or six key debate topics, so they drafted issue questions that would appear on every iPad and on the wall screen at the start of a new discussion. The questions had to be clear and understandable so audience members could vote “yes,” “no,” or “no opinion” within eight seconds.

“As a viewer,” said Penlington, “you don’t want to be watching something where’s there’s a 30-second process.”

Drawing on the results, Amanpour would guide the conversation with the panelists and occasionally ask for instant audience reaction to a point that was made. For these quick follow-ups, audience members could select either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down icon on the iPads.

In addition, CNN correspondent Max Foster worked the aisles, asking viewers how they voted and why, drawing out more nuance.

The combination worked well, said Penlington. The audience was engaged every few minutes, either electronically or by someone sharing more about which way they sided.

“It was a bit of TV theater as well as a serious political debate,” she said, adding that Amanpour had room within the format to ask follow-up questions and push the guests.

EU Membership Debated

Here’s how that played out during a question on whether there should be a referendum on membership in the European Union. At the start of the discussion, Foster gave the audience these instructions: “If you think we should have a referendum, it’s a smiley face. If you don’t, then it’s a sad face. If you don’t actually care, you can also vote for an indifferent face, so please vote.”

The wall lit up with mostly smiley faces. Final tally: 57 percent in favor of referendum; 36 percent against; and 7 percent didn’t care.

Foster approached an audience member and asked which way she voted.

CNN UK election debate

The results of a vote on holding a EU referendum appear on the wall.

“I went ‘yes,’ do have a referendum,” she said. “I think it’s right the electorate gets to choose, rather than having it promised and never delivered. It would be interesting to see if the next party leading actually does follow through.”

Foster turned to the man sitting next to her. “Do you think we should have a choice, sir?”


“There you go,” said Foster, turning to Amanpour and the panelists. “Two clear answers.”

“Well, that is pretty clear,” said Amanpour, “57 percent want a choice.”

The conversation among the panelists—Conservative Pauline Neville-Jones, Liberal Democrat David Steel, Labour’s Chris Bryant, Humza Yousaf of the Scottish National Party (SNP), and Louise Bours of the UK Independence Party (UKIP)—took off from there.

“To think we that we haven’t since the 1970s had any kind of voice on this issue at all is incredible,” said Bours, whose UKIP party is anti-EU. “We’re now pushing so people will have a say. Like the lady and the gentleman said over there, it’s absolutely vital that the electorate have a say in this.”

Bours pressed the issue, criticizing the lack of legislative power in parliament. Neville-Jones fired back that if UKIP went to the European parliament and did its job, “you would not be saying you are not part of the legislative process.”

Labour Party’s Bryant, who identified as “passionately pro-European,” cited economic interests and the political certainty the EU guaranteed against member countries reverting back to dictatorships.

He said there were more important things for the U.K. to focus on than a referendum; namely the low-wage economy. (During a different debate segment, when the audience was asked to select the issue most important to them, the economy topped the list with more than 54 percent of the vote, followed by health care, 22 percent; Europe, 13 percent; immigration, 7 percent; and foreign affairs, 3 percent.)

Steel, a Liberal Democrat, said he doesn’t think there’s a case for another referendum.

“What I’m worried about,” he said, “is the UKIP position is different from any of the other parties, that it seems to be based, particularly from your leader, on a hatred of foreigners.”

“Absolute rubbish,” Bours interjected.

“After the disaster of two world wars, coming together in Europe was a major political advance, and we should hang on to that,” added Steel.

Amanpour asked the panelists to pause there. “We’ve had some claps. I want to get a vote from the audience, and then we’ll come back to this issue, because it is actually quite fundamental.”

“So, quick vote, thumbs up, thumbs down: Do you want the U.K. to stay in the European Union? Thumbs up for yes, thumbs down for no.”  

Music played, sounding like a game show when contestants submit their final answers. Columns of thumbs, three high, started appearing on the wall.

Thumbs up: 76 percent; thumbs down: 23 percent.

“That’s pretty overwhelming. What do you say to that?” asked Amanpour.

“That’s fine, but they’ve all had their say,” said Bours. “That is the point.”

Lessons Learned

Even though including real-time feedback during a live debate was a novel idea, Penlington said it wasn’t difficult to get the guests to agree to the format once CNN explained how it would use the available technology. Debate producers made clear that the intent was to engage the audience in a meaningful way, not to hold anyone’s position up for ridicule.

CNN UK election debate

A studio audience member prepares to vote during a quick thumbs-up, thumb-down question.

“I do think there was a degree of trust in the relationship there,” said Penlington, adding that CNN wasn’t about to risk damaging its brand by going for a cheap laugh. “There was a mutual understanding on the part of the politicians that we were going to use it in a positive, enlightening, and democratically enhancing way.”

All sides seemed pleased with the outcome, she said, noting that the company that screened individuals to ensure a balanced debate audience reported that participants said they felt included and energized.

“The feedback from the panelists was good as well,” said Penlington. “They said it was interesting to see and literally to visualize what the audience was thinking at any given point. It just added another dimension to the discussion.”

About 10 percent of the 130-member audience was asked for additional comments during the one-hour debate. Penlington said it was a good number. Hearing why people vote the way they do is part of what makes for an invigorating debate—and good television.

The Thought Leadership Centre has a 150-seat capacity. A bigger venue would allow for more electronic voting—which might create more accurate voting samples, assuming the audience is vetted for party affiliation—but Penlington said it would be difficult to include more follow-up with participants unless the debate time was increased or the format was altered.

If the voting took place online, involving many thousands, she said there would have to be assurances that the technology couldn’t be hijacked by interest groups. Respected broadcasters can’t risk passing off extreme voting swings on serious news issues—such as 90 percent of people suddenly being against immigration—as credible or representative of public opinion.

Later in 2015, during a debate on climate change, CNN producers omitted the no-opinion, or neutral, option. The thinking, said Penlington, was that most people have a very strong view on climate change, so it would be OK to move to a binary vote.

What they learned instead is that people generally know where they stand on big issues like climate change, but they may not feel informed or passionate enough to weigh in on specifics, such as nuclear power or wind farms. So some people simply didn’t vote , and when that happened, it appeared as a null or negative sign.  

“We made a series of assumptions about the audience being happy with a binary choice, and as it turned out, some of them wanted to be able to express a more sophisticated opinion, so I think we ought to afford them the space to do that,” said Penlington.

The next step is getting politicians at the highest levels of government to agree to take part in interactive debates. Penlington said that CNN is not only in position to lean on its reputation and the reputation of its anchors and producers, but it now has this debate to hold up as an example.

“We got a cast of politicians on the panel who are well-regarded and well-known,” said Penlington. “These people are happy, it all went well—therefore, what do you think?”


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