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The CBC Must Demand Access to Future Leadership Debates

08/11/2015 12:35 EDT | Updated 08/11/2016 05:59 EDT
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In an election campaign that is extraordinary in so many ways, one of the more noteworthy changes is that there could be as many as five English-language leadership debates. More surprising and perplexing still is the way the CBC has abdicated its obligation as our public broadcaster to provide coverage of these events.

Numeris estimates the audience for the first of the debates last Thursday to have been about one-third that garnered in 2011, when the events were produced and distributed by the usual consortium of CBC, CTV, and Global.

The average per-minute television viewing audience was about 1.5 million, across all the channels airing the debate, compared with the 2011 per-minute average of nearly 4 million for each of the televised encounters. Online audiences are difficult to gauge, but are tiny compared with the television numbers.

The CBC, with its unparalleled household penetration, was not among the motley assemblage of television and web outlets that carried the initial Rogers-produced debate last week, nor will it be involved in the Globe and Mail/Google/YouTube effort next month. Distribution details for planned Munk Centre debate, also in September, have yet to be announced, but those productions are typically released as podcasts. French-language debates, should they take place, are planned for Quebec's largest private broadcaster, TVA.

The consortium arrangement under which leadership debates have been produced in previous federal elections was intended to ensure the largest possible audience for these important events. But the plan foundered this time around when the Conservatives said they wouldn't participate, preferring to support a handful of alternative proposals that do not include participation by the public broadcaster. A subsequent consortium initiative to go ahead without the Prime Minister imploded when NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said he won't participate in debates that do not include Harper. That left the CBC a debate-free zone.

Why the Conservatives might prefer these new, smaller debates to the traditional collaborative productions is a question best left to political pundits. Some of them have said that the Conservatives simply want to minimize the audience for live debates, which can be risky for any leader. They succeeded last Thursday.

What is clear, to the point of being axiomatic, is the motivation of Rogers and the Google and the Globe and Mail's parent, Bell Media. They're in it for the money. Not that they can expect an advertising bonanza from the debates themselves, but they're anxious to popularize their TV outlets and online services, and forcing Canadians to search them out if they want to watch a program of such widespread interest is a great way to accomplish this.

Maximum reach and accessibility for the debates is not the top priority of these massive conglomerates. Corporate concerns trump the national interest here, as in other kinds of programming.

Which is why we have a public broadcaster in the first place. The CBC exists for a couple of key reasons: to make the kind of programming private broadcasters can't or won't produce because it's risky or unprofitable, and to ensure that the country is well informed about issues of national significance. It also has a formal mandate to foster national cohesion and promote shared national values. If there was ever a category of program that falls under the headings of essential information and national cohesion surely it has to be the leadership debates in a federal election. Bringing those debates to as many Canadians as possible is central to the CBC's mandate.

There's nothing wrong with the likes of Rogers and Google and Bell trying to make a buck on the debates. But it is important that these programs of national significance be made as widely accessible as possible. And that means that the CBC, with its television and radio networks and its online services -- all built at public expense precisely to ensure universality -- be included in the distribution process.

The CBC's president and Board of Directors should be aggressively lobbying the nation's broadcast regulator, the CRTC, to give it permission to carry the debates, no matter who produces them, on the public broadcaster's television and radio networks. Not just "news access" to brief clips, but the entire debate.

Election campaigns, as news events, are too important to be left to for-profit news organizations that are controlled by corporate interests like Rogers, Google, and Bell. The public deserves a guarantee that its interests will be served as well, and that's the purpose of the CBC.

Wade Rowland's latest book, Canada Lives Here: The Case for Public Broadcasting, is available online and in bookstores.

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