general politics

Mar 24, 2010

When the Worms Turn – The inside info on audience response

You might have seen the health debate yesterday. You may even have been tragic enough to have both Channel Seven and Channel Nine broadcasts on at the same time to compare their respect

Possum Comitatus — Editor of Pollytics

Possum Comitatus

Editor of Pollytics

You might have seen the health debate yesterday. You may even have been tragic enough to have both Channel Seven and Channel Nine broadcasts on at the same time to compare their respective real-time audience response tracking of the debate – The Pollie Graph for Seven and The Worm for Nine. The first thing you may have noticed, apart from how truly tragic you were for doing such a thing, was how the two tracking lines behaved very, very differently. Channel Nine’s Worm had very little volatility; it was very inertial in its behaviour. When audience reactions changed from positive to negative, they did so in a relatively gradual manner.

Channel Seven’s Pollie Graph on the other hand reacted to every sentence Abbott and Rudd uttered. It was more volatile and far much more responsive to the moment.

The differences in behaviour between the two tracking systems can be explained by the differences in both the technology and the samples used by each channel.

Channel Nine’s worm used market research firm Ekas to source their actual participants. Ekas runs a large online panel from which self-identified undecided voters were selected to man the worm handsets – with each participant getting paid $50 to attend the shindig. The actual audience response technology however was provided by a different company, IML Australia.

Channel 7 on the other hand used Roy Morgan to not only source participants, but to provide the Roy Morgan Reactor technology to do the audience response tracking. The people selected by Morgan to participate were a cross-section of all voters (not just Undecideds that Channel Nine used) that approximately reflected the current state of voting intentions. These folks too were paid $50 to participate.

The first difference between the two audience response systems that helps explain their differing behaviour during the debate is the sample – undecided voters vs. a partisan weighted cross section of all voters.

The second difference is even larger, and goes to the technology involved, particularly the technology and design of the handsets that were used to track the responses of participants.

Morgan Reactor uses a handset with a dial on it. You just hold the handset, watch the debate and rotate the dial clockwise when your reaction is positive and anti-clockwise when it’s negative. The further you rotate the dial in either direction, the stronger the magnitude of your positive or negative response. Not only is it idiot proof, but if you imagine using such a thing for a second, you can probably picture how the actual turning of the dial becomes a natural extension to what you’re doing – you don’t really have to think about it, it just happens in the background.

IML technology utilised by Channel Nine on the other hand, is button technology. Each handset contains 9 buttons, each representing various strengths of positive or negative reaction. It is much less intuitive to use and more attention needs to be paid to the handset to ensure that the right button is being pressed at any given time.

As a consequence, the dial technology is much more responsive in terms of the immediacy of reaction (quick twist of the dial when something grabs your attention), while button technology is more inertial in registering changes as you only press the buttons after you’ve found them, and when your opinion changes.

What does this mean for the debate?

Firstly, if the Ekas provided sample of undecided voters to Channel Nine was a good estimate of the true nature of undecided voters around the country, Tony Abbott is in deep shit. Initial responses to Kevin Rudd were much more positive than they were for Abbott and general audience responses across time were much more positive for Rudd than they were for Abbott, regardless of what each leader happened to be talking about at the time.

Negative turning points for Abbott were also much sharper than they were for Rudd, suggesting that even with the gradualism of the button technology, when each leader said something that the audience didn’t like, they tended to give Rudd the benefit of the doubt until they heard him out (with trickles of negative button presses coming in as Rudd’s answer progressed). When Abbott said something the audience didn’t like, they all pressed their negative buttons early and en masse.

That suggests that undecided voters have a relatively positive predisposition to Rudd and a very short tolerance for Abbott.

More importantly, on the Roy Morgan Reactor results (which I think was the superior piece of technology kit for measuring political reaction), the immediacy of its responses told us a few interesting things.

  • The public doesn’t like Abbott’s jokes and theatrics. Whenever he tried to crack a joke, the audience response literally fell in a ditch regardless of the level it was at before the joke.
  • When Rudd talks about the boring detail of process, far from turning the public off as some journos opine, the public reaction is actually positive, and not just a little bit positive, but substantially positive.
  • When Rudd went negative on Abbott, he usually wasn’t punished for it in terms of audience response. However, when Abbott went negative on Rudd, Abbott nearly always elicited a strong, negative reaction from the audience
  • Rudd has much more generic goodwill from the public than does Abbott. As soon as Rudd started answering any question, the audience response started out in net positive territory. When Abbott started answering any question, the audience response started out around zero – sometimes a little positive, sometimes a little negative.

One of the most important things it demonstrated – and something that the polling has been suggesting for a while now – is that Abbott has very little political room to move and his support appears to be generally soft.

Roy Morgan Research will soon put up on their site all sorts of goodies about this health debate, including the real-time reactions by voting intention cross-tabs and, hopefully, by gender. When they turn up, we’ll have a good look at them – there’ll be some interesting stuff in there to chew on.


Andrew Bunn, the Research Director for Essential Media has chimed in with something interesting from their own polling that’s particularly relevant here, particularly with the Channel 9 worm and it’s undecided voter sample.

We have found in polls that “undecided” voters (which actually covers a range of positions – from engaged “swinging” voters to those who pay no attention to politics and simply don’t care who they vote for) are also much more likely to give “don’t know” responses to other questions. So it may be that they are also less likely to give strong responses with the meters regardless of the technology.


Found a pic of the IML handset (via Sky):



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41 thoughts on “When the Worms Turn – The inside info on audience response

  1. Elan

    I knew there were two worms. That’s why I couldn’t be bothered to watch them crapping.

  2. beachcomber

    mfs has a point “There seems to have been a bit of a journalistic infatuation with Abbot”.

    As a journalist himself, Abbott speaks in sound bites. He spoonfeeds lazy media outlets with easy snippets for the evening news, which sets the agenda for the daily rags.

    The worm and pollie graph suggest the electorate don’t buy it. Especially when the snappy line made one day is overuled by a contradictory snappy line a week later.

    Voters are capable of concentrating on an issue for longer than 10 seconds. Maybe the mainstream media will learn that lesson from the debate. But then again, probably not. Instead they will focus on which is better: worm, graph or naked debating?

  3. Venise Alstergren

    LIZ: How goes it on the health front? Sorry to hear you’re still feeling a bit crook. Re: TONY ABBOTT’S walk. It could come about because he has a combination of fairly long legs, for his size, and being bandy legged.

    As the media seem to have concentrated on the man’s crotch (not you First Dog) I haven’t had a chance to check it out. IMHO He has a simian walk. Are fellow simians bandy-legged?

  4. thewetmale

    Fantastic work Poss, as usual.

    I can’t help but think of the old “journos v bloggers” thing; i don’t suppose you actually picked up the phone and called someone about this? 😉

  5. Rocket Rocket

    When the worm was first used in the Keating-Hewson debates I remember watching and listening to what they were saying and then seeing how the worm reacted.

    This very quickly morphed into the “reverse” – I ended up just watching the worm, mesmerised by its tiniest fluctuations. As there was a bit of a “lag-time” (I’m pretty sure they used the rotating dials), whenever there was a sudden movement in the worm, I would instantly try and remember what had just been said, trying to get the information form the 10% or so of my consciousness that was actually watching and listening to the speakers!

    I think in general in campaign debates the worm favours the Opposition Leader, so Keating’s effort in winning the “worm score” in 1996 debate one was impresive. Then again, maybe Howard was just a crappy debater – even his “tough guy stance” 1996 debate 2 was pretty lame, as were all subsequent efforts.

  6. jenauthor

    In the wash-up I just saw something that left my jaw sitting on the floor!

    Joe Hockey, on Sunrise this morning, said the the coalition negotiated over the ETS and Labor backed away!

    Is he on the planet earth?

  7. Tweets that mention Sharing... When the Worms Turn – The inside info on audience response --

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mr Onthemoon,, David Olsen, Pollytics, timdunlop and others. timdunlop said: RT @Pollytics: When the Worms Turn – The inside info on audience response […]

  8. Possum Comitatus

    1934pc, just to expand that.

    The button approach provides what you might call a discrete variable for measuring the response of an individual – 1 through to 9.What you’re after is something that provides a continuous variable, as well as something that doesn’t require the attention of the respondent to shift from the thing they are actually supposed to be rating to the very device they are using to rate it.

  9. Possum Comitatus

    1934pc – dials and sliders

  10. 1934pc

    Dario, it’s technology, if you can let us know of a better way of getting the responses from a large number of people at the same time, let us know!.

  11. 1934pc

    I thought it was just me, Abbott has a strange walk moving his hips just like a chimp?.

  12. Liz45

    Well, I’m really sick – I watched both, from time to time!

    The negative response to Abbott could just be, that the majority of people don’t like him, with most like me, not being able to stand him – it was an effort to watch him for that length of time. I thought he wasn’t far away from really doing his nut on a few occasions? A bad tempered bully is one impression of him!

    Hi Veniese – I agree with you about abbott’s laugh? I was almost embarrassed for him – he walks like an ape and laughs ” uttered by Tony Abbott and mistook it for the mating call of a love-sick dingo; perhaps even a cry of insanity from the nearest mental hospital. Or was it thought up by one of his minders as a careless cry of rapture?”
    If he did such a good job, why is the Coalition demanding that Rudd do ‘something’ to fix the problem? After nearly 12 yrs of Howard, if they did a decent job, the whole system should be humming and just need fine tuning by the Rudd govt? But?

  13. Venise Alstergren

    Wonderful Poss; analysing the worm’s turners. Just loved the Interpretive Dance Bandicoot of First Dog.

    Being but a simple soul, I’ve misunderstood every single thing that happened. You see, I heard that laugh(?) uttered by Tony Abbott and mistook it for the mating call of a love-sick dingo; perhaps even a cry of insanity from the nearest mental hospital. Or was it thought up by one of his minders as a careless cry of rapture?

    So moving was this cry/scream/yell that it moved me to turn off the TV set. That, plus the fact it was obvious that Abbott had nothing but whinges to go on.

    It’s time the Liberals allowed the budgie smuggler to retire and polish his, um er, budgies.

  14. Possum Comitatus

    Cripes – that’s because the Libs were sending out messages left, right and center to their members and supporters to vote in those polls. Here’s an example from twitter:

    Those self-selecting online polls arent worth a pinch of the proverbial.

    Rather than the worm, I think I’d prefer the ABC’s Interpretive Dance Bandicoot!

    (First Dog cartoon – requires a Crikey subscription to see)

  15. Cripes...

    Well, now we know. I always suspected there was a sinister aspect to that slimy Worm. Perhaps a scuttling cockroach would be a more appropriate image for a political debate.

    However, I noticed that yesterday, all the online polls I checked showed Rudd way behind Abbott.

    I’m looking forward to the next debate when I’ll be tragically watching that hypnotic Worm. A hopping cane toad would work, too.

  16. Dario

    If 9 had those phone keypads then I reckon after a short while all the participants would have just had a finger on the ‘1’ and ‘9’ buttons. A dumb system really.

  17. Psephos

    Someone should have kept count of these Ruddisms:

    “It’s this…”
    “Can I just say…”
    “And you know, …”
    “Guess what?”

  18. T2

    I’m sorry… I watched Channel 7, sick in bed… Tragic, really. Still, I was suprised by how well the nerdy voice and words, weird hand movements and saying things like “Do you know…” (or something odd like that) went, compared to how Tozza’s finger waggling, attempts at humour and policy criticism went.

  19. caf

    Apparently if a mobile phone leads a wicked life, it might be reincarnated as an audience response handset!

  20. Paul Ferraro

    Grrr. I think its time we were a little more critical of the mythical super group of voters we call ‘undecideds’. They all voted in the last election for Christ’s sake! Why isn’t that information used in any voting analyses?
    Charting the number of Undecideds who voted Liberal last election favouring Rudd during the debate would be pretty informative (although it would mean the journos wouldn’t be able to scry as much).

  21. Worms, dials and buttons « Andrew Leigh

    […] yet another insightful post, Scott Steel (aka Possum Comitatus) blogs on the different ‘worm technologies’ used to follow […]

  22. Possum Comitatus

    I’ve also added a pic of the IML handsets to the bottom of the post

  23. joe2

    “Yes, Abbott might be fun to sit with and have a beer and a joke at the pub,….”

    I hear that line a lot jenauthor. I could not disagree more. His jokes are not funny. They are mostly cruel and demeaning. He has so much angst that I think it would be a danger to be around him after he had consumed a few beers. It would be his minders who might save me, like in Victorian advertisements for looking after your mate, from a broken nose.

  24. Mahaut

    @Psephos ‘The yawning gulf between political reality and the version the media tries to feed us just got a lot wider.’ Well said.
    The media seems to be operating in a parallel universe. They are obviously not reflecting the wider reality of either the polls or the worms. It is time they got over their dislike of KR.
    And thank you Poss for your analysis and congrats to Roy Morgan for his professional expertise.

  25. Peter J. Nicol

    Thanx Poss.

    Whoa! The worm *really* doesn’t like Abbot.

    Fave moment: A grinning Kruddy saying that the Catholic church has “well and truly outed” Abbott was priceless.

  26. jenauthor

    Good analysis Poss.

    I absolutely loved the opposition leader’s immediate reaction to the worm — so reminiscent of Monty Python’s dark knight of “come back — it’s just a flesh wound” fame.

    Really shows that in terms of leaders, the public understands that if they want detail, it requires ‘waffle’ despite the media’s constant complaint that the PM is boring.

    And it also shows that they might like swaggering, loud-mouthed, muscular, sportsmen but they expect more from their politicians.

    The media’s preoccupation with ‘Abbott as a ‘genuine, straight-talking bloke’ doesn’t wash. Most of us in voter land realise we live in a more sophisticated world. Yes, Abbott might be fun to sit with and have a beer and a joke at the pub, and yes, the press gallery find him more interesting for their headlines but in our leaders we want reasoned argument and more substance.

    There will come a point when the media MUST stop being so biased and misrepresenting the truth. Even when the evidence (and I don’t for a moment think that the two worms were definitive but they do demonstrate a theme) is right in front of them they find a way to turn it favourably towards Abbott. Another Monty Python skit comes to mind — dead parrots anyone?

  27. BK

    Sorry Poss – I should have glanced up.

  28. BK

    Come on Poss. What is it they have added?

  29. Possum Comitatus


    Andrew Bunn, the Research Director of Essential Media has added something pertinent that they’ve found in their polling on undecided voters that’s likely relevant to the Channel 9 worm behaviour

  30. Mark Duffett

    @1 mfs

    a bit of a journalistic infatuation with Abbott, maybe his antics liven up the boring day of a journo…

    Yes, I think journos (particularly Press Gallery ones) are very susceptible to this. Exactly the same thing happened (and still happens) with Keating, for the same reason.

  31. Aristotle

    Nice work, Possum. Thanks.

    It’s just a little more intellectually rigorous than the Neanderthal grunts we’ve heard,

    “Ugh! Worm don’t like Liberals! Worm bad! Liberals good!”

  32. Possum Comitatus

    Peter, yep!

    The whole thing can be seen here:

    It’s a collection of links from Channel 7 to 14 vids that make up the entire debate.Just make sure you click on the “expand” to get the real link for each vid.

  33. Psephos

    The yawning gulf between political reality and the version the media tries to feed us just got a lot wider. They really have disgraced themselves on this. I can understand why the Gallery hacks don’t like Rudd, but they are supposed to be professionals, able to transcend personal dislikes and give us a reasonable approximation of the truth. Instead they all seem to have decamped to Bizarro World, where everything happens in reverse. Thank Gof for the bloggosphere, I say.

  34. Peter J. Nicol

    Is there any good footage of the channel 7 worm anywhere? I can’t seem to find any with a cursory look this morning…

  35. Keith is not my real name

    Very interesting Possum, thank you. Looking forward to the rest of the data from Morgan, that will be very interesting indeed!

  36. calyptorhynchus

    This is a bit off topic, but I nearly died laughing yesterday when I saw a billboard ad for the The Australian.

    The Australian


    The advertising agency who sold them that must have thought the Australian’s publicity people were immune to sarcasm… and they were.

  37. Ern Malleys cat

    I admit I was one of those tragics scanning both the worm and the pollie graph. For me it was the only reason to watch. It couldn’t be a proper healthcare debate if Abbott didn’t have a policy, and if I want detail of the government policy there are much better sources of information.
    I too thought the pollie graph smacked down the worm, as far as responsiveness went, but seemed to have a meltdown about 3/4 way through. The worm seemed generally higher all the way though, but still had the same spread.
    It will be interesting to see if this is the peak of Abbott’s popularity, if not just for the reason that the boosters in the media might realise how fragile any public interest might be, and turn themselves.

  38. Dr00

    And yet, the MSM is so utterly blindly obsessed with Abbott that The Punch reports “With the latest opinion polls showing Mr Abbott is making inroads into the Prime Minister’s popularity, it’s unlikely an entire room of people, carefully balanced on the ideology scale, would be so put off by the mere sight of the Opposition Leader’s mug.”

    In other words, the reality doesn’t fit with the MSM’s narrative therefore reality is wrong!

  39. Cat

    Poss that is the most complete answer to one of my questions I have ever got here 🙂 Thank you.
    I enjoyed the fact that the “score” assigned by the worm of 71 – 29 was so close to the implied probabilities of election victory in your tally of the betting markets.
    Oh and thank you for the image of People Skills deep in that substance he throws around so much.


    So summing up, and quoting you (out of context, but what the heck!): “Tony Abbott is in deep shit”.

    Yeah, I think that sums it up nicely.

  41. mfs

    Nice post, Poss.
    Interesting departure from paper polls too. There seems to have been a bit of a journalistic infatuation with Abbot, maybe his antics liven up the boring day of a journo… Though it seems like polls did not reflect this at the time and we were being simply treated on the assumption that we all felt the same way the journalist in question did… Anybody else felt like this?
    I will also find it interesting how long Rudd can keep his fine form. Going by the last three years he has a finite ‘affable public person’ energy well to tap from before reverting to the dreaded ‘toxic bore’ 🙂

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