Rating the TV coverage
June 29, 2004
It's been said that even though democracy is the best form of government, it sometimes makes for the worst television. This is because Canadian elections can be nightmares for the journalists who preside over them, affairs — in recent years, anyway — that are notoriously free of suspense. It's hard to be Peter Mansbridge or Lloyd Robertson when the electorate keeps voting overwhelmingly in favour of the same party every time the country goes to the polls.
But heading into Monday evening, all indications were that things would be different this year, that the networks would have more than enough material to keep viewers from flipping the channel over to NBC to watch the latest instalment of Who Wants To Marry My Dad?. The polls pointed to a minority government, but no one seemed to know whether the Liberals or Conservatives would end up with the short end of the stick.
Well, things were different, although not in the way that political junkies had hoped. The Liberals clung to power by grabbing a much more solid minority than most people had expected, but the real story when it came to the TV coverage was how the new Elections Canada regulations affected the proceedings.
Because voting hours were staggered across the country, and because the rules concerning news blackouts were lifted, this meant that the politicking went on longer than ever before.
"I've never seen so much campaigning on election night," said Doug Long, a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.
Journalists were left with two hours to fill after the polls closed in Atlantic Canada before they got results from Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. This meant winners like Liberal Scott Brison and Conservative Peter MacKay gave victory speeches and did national interviews knowing their comments could have an impact in the rest of Canada.
"What's interesting is, in their speeches, they're basically campaigning," said Kady O'Malley, a freelance journalist who covers Parliament Hill. O'Malley wonders how this new wrinkle will play out, given that Elections Canada puts strict limits on the kinds of campaigning that candidates can do on election day.
O'Malley calls having the results roll in from Ontario and four other provinces at the same time a "seat onslaught."
"It really is very difficult to follow, especially when you're trying to concentrate on regions where particular ridings might be in play or that are crucial to one party or the other," she says, noting that this is more a problem with the way elections are run than covered.
"I think they've got to come up with a better way to stagger it because it's too confusing. You just end up with this dump of votes and it's very difficult to figure out exactly what's going on. And it used to be, when the broadcast itself was staggered, it would be handled in a more orderly way."
Although he didn't totally agree with CBC's decision to base its coverage in the foyer of the House of Commons, Long gives the public broadcaster high marks for its attempts to lighten up the evening with humour, mainly in the form of commentary by Rex Murphy and Rick Mercer. Long laughed when, at one point in the telecast, Mansbridge informed viewers of one riding where the Marxist-Leninist candidate was ahead in the vote count, albeit briefly.
O'Malley says she thought Mansbridge made creative use of the Commons setting to kill time early in the evening while waiting for fresh information to reach the election desk. At one point, he took a brief tour, even walking into the Prime Minister's private office and standing behind his desk.
According to Long, Global was able to create a very distinctive look for its election night set. Long says anchor Kevin Newman looked like "a cross between Judge Joe Brown and the Wizard of Oz" sitting at his massive election desk, flanked by tiers of workers below him. In Long's words, Global's striking set had an "inside the space station optic to it."
He did not, however, agree with the network' s editorial bent. He said he was "totally alienated" by two stories that Global ran in the minutes leading up to the beginning of its election coverage, one about the heavy tax burden on Canadians and one about Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's newly implemented health surcharge.
"This was absolutely election-day campaigning," Long said. "This is not reporting."
He also did not see the point in Global's heavy emphasis on Conservative Belinda Stronach's riding: "They've spent so much time on Belinda Stronach, I don't care if I ever hear another word about her."
But Long felt CTV's coverage was the worst. He characterized the network's all?blue set as drab, and said the focus was on "Lloyd, Lloyd and more Lloyd."
O'Malley said she spent the night flipping back and forth between CTV and CBC. "I've been watching them both and CTV is much more restricted to the studio," she noted.