Leaders’ Debates in a Post-Broadcast Democracy

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Political News Monday, December 21, 2015 View Count = 2472

Leaders’ Debates in a Post-Broadcast Democracy

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Leaders’ Debates in a Post-Broadcast Democracy ” is written by Frédérick Bastien  from the Université de Montréal

Within just 96 hours of October's federal election, Frédérick Bastien and 65 other leading thinkers and political scientists in Canada each wrote a short, snappy analysis of the election. Never before have Canadian experts collaborated to produce such a complete—and fast—response to an election. Together with UBC Press, Samara is proud to bring you all 57 articles as part of the "Election 2015" blog series, the definitive look at all angles of the 42nd general election.  

Watch this space to get all the analyses. For a complete list of academics involved, click here

The 2015 federal campaign not only showed that Canadian television networks are less authoritative than they once were, it also highlighted the lack of balance between the various interests of the media and political parties on the one hand and the value of democratic citizenship on the other. The leaders’ debates were once unique moments during which otherwise competing networks joined forces to hold appealing campaign events. In 2015, these encounters between leaders reached fewer citizens. The benefit of leaders’ debates to Canadian democracy has declined.

Aside from minor changes in each campaign, Canada’s television network consortium (CBC, CTV, Global, Radio-Canada, and TVA) has typically broadcast two televised debates—one in each official language—in every federal campaign since 1984. These were attractive events that had large audiences and significant impacts on citizens’ assessment of the leaders, vote intention, and vote choice.1

The 2015 campaign broke with this 30-year tradition. Five leaders’ debates—two in English, two in French, and one bilingual—were held by separate organizations. These changes occurred because of pressures from corporate and party interests. Furthermore, political posturing resulted in the leaders of the Green and Bloc Québécois parties not being invited to most debates, and to some other debates not proceeding. 

First, Québecor-owned TVA decided to leave the consortium and invite the party leaders to its own debate (October 2), the format of which allowed more time for duelling instead of open debate among all participants. This format differentiated TVA’s debate from the one held by Radio-Canada (September 24). Québecor’s news media heavily promoted it as the most revealing format.

Second, new stakeholders made proposals to the parties, in competition with those of the English-language media of the consortium. Following lengthy discussions over these debates that went public well before the election call, the Conservative Party announced, in May 2015, its preference for these new proposals. The parties eventually agreed to take part in debates held by Maclean’s (August 6), The Globe and Mail (September 17) and the Munk Debates (September 28). Publicity for these debates was increased through online streaming on these organizations’ websites or mobile apps, in addition to partnerships with certain cable channels, especially CPAC (a channel that focuses mostly on parliamentary activities, similar to C-SPAN in the United States). This was a striking departure from the traditional broadcasting strategy.

These English-language debates clearly challenged the authoritative voice of the largest Canadian television networks. More importantly, however, that they were not simultaneously broadcast on CBC, CTV, and Global significantly diminished their appeal. For instance, Maclean’s claimed that 4.3 million Canadians tuned in for its debate, of whom 3.8 million watched on the cable networks CPAC, City TV, and OMNI, with an average audience of 1.5 million. By ­comparison, the 2011 English-language debate attracted 10.6 million viewers, with an average per-minute audience of 3.85 million. The Globe and Mail and Munk debates were broadcast only on CPAC and online.

Markus Prior’s award-winning book Post-Broadcast Democracy presents evidence that once freed from the programming schedule of the TV networks (thanks to cable TV and Internet), citizens are more likely to switch to programs that more closely match their preferences. Political junkies expose themselves to much more information on public affairs than previously, but most citizens switch to more entertaining shows. As a consequence, in a high-choice media environment, a substantial proportion of citizens have lower political knowledge and are less likely to vote on election day than in a low-choice one.2

While the traditional format of the leaders’ debates would not have fully counteracted this phenomenon, it is conceivable that Canadian democratic citizenship has suffered from the failure of the consortium to gather the party leaders for a debate with a potentially much larger viewership. Media stakeholders and political parties will always fight for their own interests, but who will stand up for citizenship?

1  For instance: Richard Johnston et al., Letting the People Decide: The Dynamics of a Canadian Election, Montréal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992; André Blais and Martin Boyer, “Assessing the Impact of Televised Debates: The Case of the 1988 Canadian Election,” British Journal of Political Science 26, no.2, 1996: 143-164; André Blais et al., “Campaign Dynamics in the 2000 Canadian Election: How the Leader Debates Salvaged the Conservative Party,” PS: Political Science & Politics 36, no.1, 2003: 45-50; André Blais and Andrea M. L. Perrella, “Systemic Effects of Televised Leaders’ Debates,” The International Journal of Press/Politics 13, no.4, 2008: 451-464.

2. Markus Prior, Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Fred BastienFrédérick Bastien is an Assistant Professor in the Département de science politique, and Associate Director in the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship at the Université de Montréal. Frédérick Bastien’s research focuses on the mediatization of politics, political journalism, and online technologies. He has published on politics and infotainment television programs (Tout le monde en regarde!, Presses de l’Université Laval, 2013) and he was the lead editor of Les Québécois aux urnes: les partis, les médias et les citoyens en campagne (Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2013).

You can also find this article in the e-book Canadian Election Analysis 2015: Communication, Strategy, and Democracy, which is available for download on UBC Press's website

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