Behind the Curtain: Debate Planning – Who’s in and Who’s Out?

Election 2015 didn’t just break the mold for Leaders’ debates, it smashed it to smithereens.

As a result, it’s been a fascinating election for debates. New this year: so long to the single English and single French TV debate hosted by the major media consortium. The year 2015 was all about variety, with five debates (some English, some French, some bilingual) organized by non-traditional hosts like Maclean’s and Aurea Foundation.

One way the debates didn’t stray from tradition: a good amount of controversy over which of the four party leaders would be included. Similar to years past, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was forced to stand on the sidelines for two of the five televised Leaders’ Debates: the Munk Debates on foreign policy and the Globe and Mail debate on the economy.

TV debates can be historic turning points. They can also be snooze-fests that get Canadians reaching for the remote control. The challenge faced by editors, producers, and journalists is to find a way to make a TV debate accessible, inclusive, fair, informative, and let’s not forget – entertaining. Decisions about who to include (and who to leave out) are agonized over in newsrooms, and scrutinized by the parties and the public.

So how do debate organizers do this important work?

The important thing to know is that consistency is not king. Just because a media outlet set the bar for participation at 10 per cent of the popular vote four years ago doesn’t mean they’ll do the same this election. This mercurial positioning by media infuriates political parties on the bubble – but it happens for a good reason: fairness and public interest. Imagine you’re a news director at a regional radio station hosting an all-candidate’s debate. Four years ago, the Green Party had a candidate but was considered a non-starter in your riding. In the interest of providing a streamlined debate with ample opportunity for the three real contenders to speak, you told the Greens “sorry – we’re capping this at 10 per cent of popular vote in the last election.” Greens got left out. This time around, you have a fierce three-way race. The Greens still didn’t have 10 per cent in the last election, but they’re polling well and are likely to split the vote. So do you include them this time around?

For many news organizations, the answer to that will be yes – much to the chagrin of the other three parties.

In British Columbia in 2013, this scenario played out in a dramatic, election-altering way. The BC Conservative Party under John Cummins was an upstart group with little to no impact in previous elections. However, as May 2013 approached, it looked as though they had the opportunity to take a large percentage of the centre-right vote and throw the BC Liberals out of office. Trouble for the media was to figure out how to fairly include them. The B.C. television consortium had a few options, including: popular vote percentage from the previous election, current aggregate polling statistics, or number of candidates running.

Popular vote percentage wasn’t going to be helpful. In the 2009 election the BC Conservatives had just over two per cent… rather low to be used as a threshold. Polling could work… the BC Conservatives were polling at about 20 per cent, but this may have been a bit weak as a single basis of inclusion (wise, as the polling turned out to be drastically incorrect). And finally, the BC Conservatives were promising to run candidates in every riding (ultimately, they didn’t).

Using a complex combination of these criteria, four main party leaders in B.C. were invited to participate in the consortium’s debate – including Cummins. Considering his awkward performance, the BC Conservative Leader may have been better off to have been left out. The party did not spoil the 2013 election for the BC Liberals. They did increase their popular vote, though – to 4.7 per cent.

Despite the fact that debate criteria are determined behind closed doors and the public at large may never know how these decisions are made, media are often criticised for them. But if the only concern was planning the best possible programming in order to gain the most viewers and sell the most air time to advertisers, the debates we see and hear would be very different. That’s because the simplest debates are usually the best. Arguably the most interesting debate this election, generating the most informative and entertaining content, was the Munk Debate on CPAC. The three main leaders, minimal interference from the moderator, a chance for a bit of two-way discussion, a modest set and restrained applause from a live audience – it just worked. Fancy sets, high-profile moderators and complex rules stifle the spontaneous, even explosive, moments that make debates fun to watch.

A final note from a programming perspective. At the end of the day, the most entertaining and dramatic debates are one-on-ones. The fact that we don’t see these in 21st century Canadian campaigns is a sign of the changing landscape of politics and governance in our country – but, contrary to popular belief, a sign also of the extraordinary effort media take to be fair and inclusive.