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Ontario election 2014: How to make a debate

Categories: Canada, Politics

(Photo: Canadian Press)

By Bob Weiers

The leaders' debate in every election has become one of the key moments of the campaign. A lot has been written about why it's important and the political strategy behind it. In the days ahead, you'll read about who won the debate, if indeed there was a winner, and who lost.

I'm writing today about how it gets made.

Step One: The networks meet

After the Ontario election was called, all the broadcast news networks met fairly quickly to start organizing three things: campaign pool coverage, election night pool coverage at the major leaders' headquarters and a broadcast debate. The first is the most urgent, as the campaign was already underway. At the first meeting, we agreed to set up a consortium of networks to produce a single TV debate. We also determined how many networks would join and broadcast the debate.

The debate takes a lot of resources and costs a lot of money to produce. A consortium means that cost can be shared equally among partners. It also gives us more sway in the negotiations with the political parties that come later. This time around, we ended up with seven organizations: CBC, CTV, Global, CHCH, CPAC, TVO and Sun News Network. The debate would be available on those networks on TV, radio and online.

Next, the conversation is about who can produce the actual show and about dates and times. The reality is that there is only a very few days in the campaign calendar where a debate makes sense. The political parties don't want a debate too close to election day. They want time to recover from a mistake or capitalize on a good performance. The broadcasters don't want a debate too early, before platforms are announced, storylines are clear and viewers are engaged in the election. Friday evenings and weekends are out, too.

That leaves about 10 days from which to choose.

Then, all seven organizations look at their broadcast schedules, production schedules and available resources (already stretched thin by the campaign coverage) to see where and how a debate can fit in. It's a jigsaw puzzle that takes a few days and a few meetings to figure out. In the end, this time, there was only a single day that fit all the broadcasters' schedules, and where there was a control room and a studio available and the production staff to mount the event: June 3.

Step Two: Meeting the political parties

When the networks meet the parties, we discuss the program format, the rules, who would fill the role

of moderator and who will participate. Some of the decisions are easy (the choice of the talented TVO anchor Steve Paikin, who had moderated five previous debates, took about 10 seconds), others turn into vigorous discussions.

Some contentious issues are deferred to later meetings. We also negotiate a vast array of logistics around the debate, such as arrivals, dressing rooms, post-debate media availabilities, walk-throughs, lighting checks and security sweeps. Much of what is ultimately decided is determined by a series of random draws. For example: the order the leaders make their final remarks, their positions at the podiums, the order of their arrivals and much more.

There are several meetings and conference calls to get all this done, but there are two dominating and different perspectives.

For the networks, we are pushing to create a watchable and journalistically sound program that gives the audience and voters a chance to hear direct answers to the most important issues of the campaign. The networks also want a forum to hold the candidates accountable for those answers.

The political parties, meanwhile, see this as an opportunity for their candidate to directly reach the largest number of voters with their platform and their message. It's the only chance for their candidate to directly engage their opponents with the hope of influencing the outcome of the campaign.

So, in the end, we have a moderator who does not ask questions. There is no panel of journalists. We get the viewers to submit questions, but our journalists decide which questions to use. The networks also select the topics.

One contentious issue that the seven broadcast organizations decide alone is who to invite to the debate. It's an issue we agree on unanimously. There are 23 registered political parties for the current election. Clearly, a 90-minute debate that includes all of them is not an option. The criteria we used as a guide is as follows:

  • Is the party registered with Elections Ontario?
  • Does the party have an identified and full-time leader?
  • Are they running candidates in all, or nearly all of the 107 ridings?
  • Does the party, based on reliable polling data over a period of time and recent political history, have a legitimate chance to win the government?
  • Does the party hold a seat in the legislature that they were elected to in the last vote? (Floor crossers don't count)
The Green Party of Ontario meets some of these criteria. But they did not win a seat in the last election or in a subsequent byelection. In 2011, they received only 2.92 per cent of the popular vote.

That said, if the Greens win a seat next Thursday night and hold it until the next election, there would be a very strong case to be made for them to participate in the next debate.

Step Three: Making the program

While the meetings and negotiations continue, the production team starts work on all the things we need to make the program. The biggest job is to build and light a set, and not blow the budget to do it. The political parties wanted modest, light-weight podiums to stand behind during the debate. We found a suitable one in storage, but needed to build two more identical ones. A desk left over from CBC Sports coverage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup got a new coat of paint and became the desk for the moderator. Loyal CBC viewers might have recognized the background flats. Those were last used on the recently cancelled program, "In the Kitchen with Stefano."

We spent some money on the graphic look and to create a huge floor decal to give the set some colour and presence. We used seven cameras to cover all the angles and to make sure that each leader had a dedicated head-on camera.

All the consortium members asked their viewers to send in questions. We got hundreds. We sorted them by topics. We went through all the questions, and we picked the final topics based in part on the volume of questions.

For example, we got a lot of questions about the Progressive Conservatives' "Million Jobs Plan." That became an obvious choice for a question on the topic of Jobs and the Economy.

Once we had the final questions, the networks assigned TV crews to conduct the field interviews and record the questions.

We also had to construct a media room for the more than 50 journalists and camera crews covering the leaders every step. Nearby, we constructed an area for the leaders to hold post-debate news conferences.

Step Four: The show

The program you saw or heard on Tuesday night was the result of the work of about 100 talented people, working for the past 10 days. Some of those people, of course, have been working on this throughout the campaign.

Is there a better way? Should there be more than one debate? Should those multiple debates have different formats? Should there be in-studio audiences? Should there be a system like in the United States, where an independent commission organizes the debate and all we do is point the cameras? Should there be a debate where all the parties participate? If there are multiple debates, should they take place across the province so different regional interests can be represented?

These are all good questions. But the time to ask them and answer them is not in the middle of a campaign already underway. The complexity and cost of producing just a single TV debate means any real changes to what gets done and how need to happen long before the next campaign begins.

Bob Weiers is a Senior Producer at CBC News, primarily assigned to elections and live events. He's been covering politics since joining the CBC in 1990. His first election as a member of the CBC Core Group (the production team that travels the country setting up all that's needed to do an election night show) was in Alberta in 2004. He's worked on every one since.

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