Federal election 2015: How media coverage of debates could change

When the federal leaders' debates are held ahead of the next election, they may not be available in the traditional way, airing live on the main television networks. But in the digital era, does it matter how the message gets out?

Viewers, media would adapt if Conservatives remain cold to major networks hosting

The 2011 leaders' debate, above may have been the last aired by a consortium of broadcasters. The Conservative Party has accepted proposals by TVA and Maclean's/Rogers to host two separate debates, in French and English, respectively. (Canadian Press)

When the leaders' debates are held ahead of the next federal election, they may not be available for viewing in the traditional way, airing live on the main television networks.

The broadcast consortium made up of CBC News, ICI Radio-Canada Télé, CTV News and Global News had been gearing up to host the debate as in previous campaigns.

But last week, the Conservative Party turned its back on the group and instead accepted proposals from French-language TVA and Maclean's/Rogers.

While the consortium remains a willing broadcaster, and there's still time for more talks before October's vote deadline, the Conservatives could decide to stick with less extensive television coverage.

If that happens, what will it mean for Canadians who want to tune in?

And in the digital era, does it even matter how the message gets out?

Well, voters will obviously still have choices for getting news on what the leaders are promising, and for many, that means doing what they already do — hunting it down online and cherry-picking what's important to them.

It'll be the politicians and media who may be adapting the most in how they shape and package those messages — for their own reasons.

Viewers who can't see the leaders on a major network  may lose the sense of sitting down as an entire country to watch a direct confrontation between party leaders, said Ryerson University journalism school chair Ivor Shapiro.

Losing 'central moment' in the campaign

Shapiro said they may also lose that "one central moment" in the race that can crystallize perceptions, turning a debate into something people can then link to, as well as scour for clips and quotes.

"That moment in the election campaign seems to be the moment when a lot of things become clearer or not," Shapiro said.

What's not clear is how many viewers will actually sit down in front of television sets for what could be as many as five debates.

TVA draws more viewers, on average, than Radio-Canada in Quebec. Rogers has audiences with its Omni multicultural stations in Ontario, Alberta and B.C., and its City television network in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.

Social media, stratifying audience

"Obviously every year, every week, viewership of traditional newscasts is down and will never come back in favour of people curating their own messages or finding curations online, and then social media," said Shapiro. "That's a reality. So the debate has the downside, the putting of enormous resources and focus into the presentation of the big debate."

No matter what the audience, there remains questions about shaping the message.

In moving away from traditional networks, "you can stratify your audience and target your message more precisely than you can with one big debate, because the big debate is, of course, going to be watched online as well, the consortium debate," Shapiro said.

Major networks have banded together, in part, because it's expensive to host a televised debate.

Resources like that could be spent elsewhere in the digital world, Shapiro said, and one important thing the news media can do to serve Canadians if television coverage changes for the campaign is to offer up a model of compare-and-contrast from one debate to another.

Value in debate post-mortem

The Conservatives, for example, could hit on some of their go-to issues, such as law and order and fighting terrorism. If so, what could be of interest to voters is how messages change from one debate to another.

Shapiro said news organizations could put clips together — again curating and comparing messages — from various debates in the series to be more like coverage that would come from a consortium-run debate.

"You could help a voter understand what Conservatives have been saying to religious communities and to youth in the stratified areas," he said. The other parties would also have to be watched as they too, offer up targeted messages to different audiences.

In the absence of the traditional broadcast partners hosting debates, journalists at those networks would actually have a greater responsibility to increase coverage to prevent any perception of corporate self-interests at play, Shapiro added.

One way to fulfil that obligation is through post-debate analysis. In the meantime, journalists can provide near-live coverage by tweeting the events.

The Conservatives' fixed election date is Oct. 19, and debates are typically held in the last couple of weeks of a 35-day campaign.

The consortium is still planning to meet with the main parties this week.

However, Conservative Party spokesman Kory Teneycke, appearing on CBC's Power & Politics last week, said of the Tories, "We have no plans to attend a consortium meeting."

He said the governing party is interested in letting Rogers and TVA have a chance at producing debate coverage in the name of "diversity and innovation."