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Viewership up, but format questions remain for leaders' debates

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/10/2019 (235 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Federal leaders debate in front of a live audience during the Federal leaders debate in Gatineau, Que. on Monday, October 7, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Federal leaders debate in front of a live audience during the Federal leaders debate in Gatineau, Que. on Monday, October 7, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA - The viewership for Monday's leaders' debate was far higher than contests in the last election, despite complaints that the format favoured conflict over substance.

Numbers provided by the media partnership that produced the debate suggest Monday's event reached 9.64 million Canadians on television, with an average audience of 3.9 million Canadians tuning in (calculated as the average number of individuals watching per minute during a specific period).

A further 867,000 or so listened or streamed on radio, while there were 2.7 million digital video views.

That's higher than events in 2015, when a debate organized by Maclean's, for example, reached a TV audience of 3.8 million Canadians and had an average audience of 1.5 million.

In the last election, a longstanding history of debates organized by a consortium of broadcasters fragmented when then-prime minister Stephen Harper decided he would not attend most consortium events. The result was a schedule of many smaller, independent events with fewer viewers.

And Monday's ratings were also lower than in 2011, when a consortium-organized debate reached about 10.6 million viewers, with an average audience per minute of 3.85 million.

Though the numbers for Monday's debate were back in the same neighbourhood, the debate's format shows the idea of handing control of the events back to television networks has failed, said Paul Adams, a journalism professor at Carleton University.

After the controversies in 2015, the federal government set up the Leaders' Debates Commission to ensure two widely viewed events attended by all the major-party leaders, and the independent body eventually selected the "Canadian Debate Production Partnership" to produce those debates — choosing the format and setting the themes. The partnership is made up of broadcasters, much like the old consortium, but also the Toronto Star, HuffPost Canada, HuffPost Quebec, La Presse, Le Devoir and L'Actualite.

Adams said the decision to allow the format to be determined by a group of media outlets meant it failed to sufficiently incorporate the principle of public interest in the debate. It had the conversation leap rapidly from topic to topic leaders occasionally shouted over one another, desperate for seconds to make their points and land their jabs.

"There was supposed to be somebody in the end who represented the public interest and made decisions not based on pressures from either TV producers or parties, but made decisions based on public interest," Adams said.

Debates tend to have two audiences, he said. First, there's a group of partisans whose votes are unlikely to change. Second, there is a mass of undecided voters who want to learn party positions on policy questions and to make decisions on how to cast their ballots.

But that basic information is not as exciting to people organizing the debate and looking to benefit from exciting TV, Adams said.

"The television news producers want a snappy show, that moves along, that doesn't get 'boring,' in their terms," he said.

One way to do that is by keeping answers short and the other is by promoting conflict, he said. Both featured prominently Monday night, and neither serves the interest of Canadians hoping to learn about the parties, Adams said.

Crosstalk — of which there was a great deal Monday — "is not a failure of the format, it is a success of that format," Adams said.

If there are any tweaks to be made before Thursday's French-language event, he said, it would be to increase speaking times during segments and encourage stricter moderation during free debate.

The Leaders' Debates Commission declined to comment on Monday's debate.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the production partnership, Leon Mar of the CBC, said Monday's format was required to accommodate the two-hour limit and the fact there were six leaders on stage.

"We're obviously happy to have successfully produced and distributed last night's debate through an unprecedented number of channels in an historic number of languages, and we're looking forward to doing the same on Thursday for the French-language debate," he wrote.

Amanda Bittner, a political-science professor at Memorial University, said in an email voters should still have been able to "glean important insights into the leaders, their personalities, and how they might behave if elected" from the debate.

That was "despite the format and the talking over one another that took place," she said.

Bittner was critical of the short duration of each segment and the lack of detail, something she said is "normal for debates."

And Bittner was skeptical any votes would change based on the results, pointing to the fact debates are watched by only a small number of people.

"I think that most people who actually watch debates are already highly motivated political followers, many of whom know how they will vote already," she said.

Instead, most of the movement would come afterward, when Canadians tune into post-debate media coverage and watch shorter clips, Bittner said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2019.

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