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Election: 70% surge in viewers for BBC leaders' debate fuels high turnout speculation

By Noel McAdam

Around 172,000 viewers tuned in for the final Assembly leaders' debate on BBC - up more than 70% on last year.

The figure for the live broadcast was higher than the corresponding UTV debate a fortnight ago, which was watched by 141,000 people.

It is being seen as an indication that the public is more engaged in this election than others in recent years, and also a sign of a potential higher turnout in today's poll.

During the debate DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill clashed, accusing each other of showing disrespect.

The BBC programme, hosted by Noel Thompson, also had a 31% share of all available audiences watching at the time.

That compares to a 23% share of the audience for the pre-recorded UTV debate presentation, which was hosted by Marc Mallet.

The statistics for the hour-long BBC programme involving Mrs Foster, Mrs O'Neill, the Ulster Unionist Party's Mike Nesbitt, the SDLP's Colum Eastwood and Alliance's Naomi Long showed it outstripped viewing figures for the TV debate for last May's election.

The audience on Tuesday night was more than 70,000 higher than nine months ago.

On May 3 last year the BBC leaders' debate programme had an average audience of 98,000 - 75.5% lower than Tuesday's, and just an 18% share of all available viewers watching at the time.

The network average for the same slot is 21%. "Last night's debate on BBC One NI had a 31% share of all available audiences watching at that time," the BBC said.

"The network average for the same slot was 24%."

The network average refers to the mean number of people watching BBC One across the rest of the UK in the same time slot. BBC NI opted out of the main network programming to screen the live debate.

The trend is also confirmed by BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan's two election specials.

Last Wednesday's Nolan Live TV election debate had an average audience of 139,000 (a 43% share).

The previous week, another pre-election Nolan show attracted an average of 157,000 viewers (42% share).

Also, the main televised BBC politics programme, The View, last week had an average audience of 98,000 (a 31% share).

The previous week it had an audience of 97,000 (a 25% share).

It is understood that those figures are significantly up on the corresponding programmes before last year's election.

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