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Broadcasters fight back against federal leaders’ debate changes

A man leaves the CBC building in Toronto on Wednesday, April 4, 2012.

Nathan Denette/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A consortium of major broadcasters that has traditionally run federal party leader's debates is fighting back in the wake of Stephen Harper's decision to skip its upcoming events.

The broadcasters, including CBC, Radio-Canada, CTV and Global, released a statement Thursday arguing they alone can provide the greatest audience reach for these TV debates.

The consortium argued that the debates the Harper Conservatives have chosen to attend, including ones organized by Maclean's and TVA, will not reach a wide enough audience. Rogers will broadcast the Maclean's debate through assets including CityTV.

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"TVA, CityTV and Maclean's debates will no doubt be valuable to their viewers and readers," Consortium spokesperson Liliane Le said. "However, TVA is a broadcaster mainly focused on the Quebec market, CityTV is an urban-based broadcaster with six stations and Maclean's has a circulation of over 300,000."

By comparison, the major broadcasters say, the consortium's audience range is far wider.

"Every Canadian has access to one, if not all, of the broadcast Consortium' stations. Radio-Canada broadcasts to all Francophones across the country," Ms. Le said.

"The Consortium's audience share for the 2011 leaders debates was over 10-million viewers for the English-language debate and over four-million viewers for the French-language debate," she said.

A federal election is expected this October, and this Tuesday the Harper Conservatives shook up plans for campaign debates, saying they would refuse to participate in the traditional leaders' debates run by the consortium of broadcasters and instead take part in as many as five independently staged debates in the run-up to the fall federal election.

The decision by Mr. Harper's Conservatives to walk away from the consortium that has historically run these events will erode the power that major broadcasters have had in determining how federal political leaders face off on TV before elections.

It appears to be an effort by the Tories to decrease the political weight of the debates by splitting them into smaller events with smaller audiences where the Conservatives have more leverage to achieve the format and focus that they feel suits them as a right-of-centre incumbents.

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Conservative campaign spokesman Kory Teneycke said the Tories have rejected the consortium's proposal to hold four debates and have accepted invitations to participate in the two rival debates.

He said the Conservatives are open to participating in three more – two English-language and one French – but that the party will not accept further proposals from the consortium.

Until recently, Mr. Teneycke was a senior executive at Sun News Network, a now-defunct right-wing media outlet that made no secret of its distaste for CBC, the taxpayer-funded broadcaster.

The Conservative decision puts pressure on other federal political parties to follow suit in abandoning the consortium-run debates. However, neither the NDP nor the Liberals said they would reject the traditional consortium-run debates.

But the NDP said they have also accepted the Maclean's debate invitation, accepted TVA's in principle, as well as a third debate put forward by an initiative on women's equality called Up for Debate.

The consortium, for its part, says it still plans to hold its debates even if Mr. Harper isn't present.

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"The major networks intend to organize leaders' debates at the height of the campaign and Canadians will be able to watch the debates both on conventional TV and in digital spaces. Once again, the Consortium intends to distribute its debates to other media outlets as it believes that all Canadians should be able to watch the political debates which are useful tools in helping them make educated decisions at the polls," Ms. Le said.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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