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Election Night TV: Back To The Future On May 7th

05/05/2015 15:06 BST | Updated 01/05/2016 10:12 BST

As one popularity contest ends, another begins; at 10pm on Thursday, the broadcasters will mount their 2015 general election night programmes. Yet despite the promise of all-new gadgetry, interaction and virtual reality graphics, the most significant aspect of polling night television is how little it has fundamentally altered since the inaugural BBCtv results service in 1950.

On BBC1, David Dimbleby will front his final election night broadcast before handing over to his successor, Huw Edwards in the morning. Jeremy Paxman once joked, "'It is part of the constitution of this country that all events have to be presented by a Dimbleby"; incredibly, BBC Television's next general election coverage - provisionally, in 2020 - will be its first without the Dimbleby name as either presenter or reporter.

The Corporation's early programmes set the election night template, with two elements becoming an essential part of any broadcast. The 'swing' - as interpreted by Sir David Butler in the BBC's first ten televised general election programmes - is now an essential component in every broadcaster's cache of results graphics; in 1955, the BBC devised an ideal form of illustration: the swingometer. The device was originally a basic piece of card; in 1959, controlled by Butler, it became a fixture in the BBC election studio. Later, the contraption was presented by Professor Robert McKenzie, then Peter Snow; the device has undergone many a transformation over the years, but remains fundamentally the same. This year, four - yes, four - swingometers are at the command of Jeremy Vine to cope with the multitude of parties competing to hold the balance of power.

The second key component is the battleground, which came to prominence in 1964; similar in appearance to a sporting league table, the list displayed Tory seats susceptible to the Labour swing. In consequent results programmes, the battleground has grown in size and aptitude; initially, increased studio space allowed it to display the full range of potential gains and losses. Latterly, computer graphics have enabled its core data to be illustrated in more inventive and, occasionally, absurd formats. Despite the incredible advance of technology - enabling the BBC's flying paving stones in 2001, Sky's virtual lobby of 2005 and ITV's three-dimensional cylinders in 2010 - almost all modern illustrations are derived from the swingometer and the battleground.

Over on ITV, political editor Tom Bradby chairs the overnight programme before Alastair Stewart takes over in the morning. The commercial channel's greatest polling night innovation was both revolutionary and incredibly basic; in 1964, anchorman Alastair Burnet introduced the 'seat counter', a simple strip across the bottom of the screen which initially read: Con 0 Lab 0 Lib 0. "...but there are six hundred and thirty seats to go", Burnet advised. "It'll keep you bang up-to-date on the parties, second-by-second". The presence of a fixed on-screen total became an essential aspect in election night broadcasts from then on.

On-screen graphics will play a prominent role in Sky's sixth general election night, with the Soccer Saturday vidiprinter swapping Aston Villa and West Ham for Birmingham Ladywood and...er, West Ham. The channel's own political veteran Adam Boulton will host on the night, with Dermot Murnaghan assuming presenting duties the following morning. The channel promises live pictures from over 250 constituencies; viewers to Sky Arts 1 will have a rare opportunity to see the Sky News gallery select these shots throughout.

All three programmes will lead with their joint exit poll at 10pm; the first such exercise was in 1970. In the BBC studio, Robert McKenzie compared the newspaper opinion polls, all of which - bar one - pointed to a third term for Labour. Presenter Cliff Michelmore then revealed, "Now we're going to try something entirely new". Throughout the day, the BBC had been asking constituents in Gravesend not how they intended to vote - as all opinion polls did - but how they had voted. The survey's shock finding correctly pointed to victory for the Conservatives.

Of course, for many viewers the evening's main attraction is not the psephology but the personalities - who will join George Brown, Tony Benn, Chris Patten and Michael Portillo in providing the night's most significant defeat? In an election determined to confound pundits, journalists and bookmakers, there is only one certainty - there will be a government of some description at the end of day; which day remains to be seen. Before then, many hours of drama and excitement await; let's raise a glass - or rather, a super-size cup of espresso - to election night, providing fascinating television for sixty-five years.

Swing: A brief history of British General Election Night broadcasting is available now for Kindle devices and apps.