FORGET vox populi, vox dei: if you want an authentic voice of the people, call on Scotland’s Lorraine Kelly. The breakfast television host is marking her 60th birthday year by letting rip on all manner of topics, from the candour of Boris Johnson’s former tech tutor Jennifer Arcuri (“I don't really see the point of you coming on”) to televised election debates.

“Terrible. Underwhelming. I was shouting at the TV,” said Kelly of the ITV head to head between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. She is not alone in wondering if the debates have become too much of a bad thing.

After the same ITV debate hosted by Julie Etchingham, criticism on social media ranged from “worse than useless: soundbite answers, no scrutiny, clapping partisans in the audience”, to “an hour’s worth of repetitive sound bites and evasive answers with little content”. Last week’s STV Leaders Debate was similarly heckled. “What a rabble,” said one viewer. “The same old it wisnae us it was them garbage. Masterchef is definitely a better choice.”

In this election, viewers have been offered two head to head leaders debates; a Question Time leaders special; a seven-way clash of leading party figures; a climate emergency event at which no-shows Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were replaced by ice sculptures; and an STV debate for Scottish party leaders. On Monday there is a Question Time special for young voters, and on Tuesday, BBC Scotland just makes it under the wire ahead of polling day on December 12 with its leaders debate.

Perhaps the dearth of debates for so long accounts for the current torrent. Debates had been a mainstay on American television since 1960, and were part of the TV landscape in Germany, Australia and elsewhere. But Britain had to wait till 2010 for its first clash, between David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown. What took us so long? Debates were thought to be “too trivial, too American”, summed up Ric Bailey in a report for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. But that was only part of it.

“Debates did not happen before 2010 for a very clear reason... Opposing Westminster political parties would not agree to TV election debates until they were sure there was something in it, electorally, for them.”

One early fan of the 2010 debates was Andy Murray, who told the Independent on Sunday he was “hooked” on them. The tennis player was 23 at the time. One of the benefits of the debates, it would be later argued, was that they increased interest and engagement among young voters.

Not everyone was convinced. Critics accused the debates of putting show before substance and taking away from the dissection and discussion of policies. The historian Andrew Roberts said: “To watch Gordon Brown, who was, after all, the statesman who kept us out of the euro, having to tell clunkingly bad gags about how Cameron and Clegg ‘remind me of my boys at bathtime, squabbling in the bath’, was to recognize how television inevitably infantilises and cheapens our democracy.”

Dr Andy Dougan, lecturer in film and television studies at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is not a fan of the debates as currently constituted. He prefers the American and Canadian system where independent commissions are in charge of the rules. In the US, debates have several moderators, distinct subjects, for example, foreign policy, and strict rules on timing. It is not mandatory to participate, but the debates have become such an accepted part of electoral life it would be very odd for anyone to stay away.

“[The politicians] can perform, they can pull rabbits out of hats as much as they want but there has to be a degree of control to the scrutiny they are put under,” says Dougan. “That’s probably the best way of getting information to the electorate.”

Other suggested reforms include switching off mics so other speakers cannot interrupt when someone is giving an answer; making the debates longer and have participants seated across from each other at a desk (the French style); and asking the audience to stay quiet, as happened in 2010. In this campaign, parties and viewers have complained about audiences cheering, laughing and jeering.

Without rules, says Dougan, debates become bun fights. “Everything degenerates into soundbites, who can be snappy, who can come up with the best one liner. There is no substance to them.”

He prefers the Andrew Neil one-to-one, forensic approach to debates. But what of the argument that debates are a good test of mettle, a way of finding out if a candidate has the right stuff to lead the country?

“We are looking for a Prime Minister, not a presenter of The Price is Right. The electorate deserves to have [politicians] challenged on substance and it is very difficult to do that when they end up shouting across each other.”

Where debates can play a role, says Dougan, is in generating surprises. “So much of politics now is dominated by the grid. 'These are today’s talking points, this is what we are going to do today'. The debates do allow those rare moments of spontaneity.” He points to Sajid Javid extracting a commitment for his fellow Tory leadership contenders for a specific inquiry into Islamophobia in the party, even if they did not subsequently follow through on it.

From the parties’ point of view there is much value to be had from debates in that they generate clips that can be spread on social media. As for the electorate, a third of respondents in a poll for the Electoral Reform Society said debates were key in deciding which party they backed.

Viewing figures for debates have fallen since 2010 as the novelty has waned. That first debate was watched by more than 10 million. The ITV debate this year drew 6.7 million: still a respectable haul. Star quality certainly matters. A record 84 million tuned in to see the first clash between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, compared to 66 million for the JFK/Nixon clash.

Dougan won’t be watching on Monday and Tuesday, having had his fill with the ITV debate. “I thought, I’m out of here because I’m not learning anything new.”

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the ERS, backs the debates but wants the format determined by an independent commission, not talks between party leaders and broadcasters.

“TV debates are becoming more and more important with each election. People aren’t voting with life-long loyalties so getting it right matters. But in the present anarchic set-up, so much depends on how broadcasters cut deals with politicians.”

He has called in the past for the new Commons Speaker to establish a debates commission “to ensure elections are not a plaything of parties but a tool for voters to learn, engage and hold leaders to account during a campaign”.

Bailey believes the debates are here to stay. “Few developments in the political landscape can claim such levels of approval as that achieved by the TV election debates. In an environment where so much of political life prompts a negative reaction among the public at large, it seems barely worth asking the question ‘Are they here to stay?’: how could they possibly not be?”

Question Time Election Special: Under 30s, BBC1, Monday, 8.30pm; Scotland Leaders Debate, BBC1, Tuesday, 8pm.