Debate was a flop

TV executives like the new format, but the numbers show Quebecers weren't impressed

Débat des chefs - Québec 2008

For Jean Charest, the bad news is that the only public poll on Tuesday's election debate says that over all, he lost and Pauline Marois won (I hate to say I told you so).
The good news for the Liberal leader is that it probably doesn't matter, since the poll (snipurl. com/6wp0k), by CROP for La Presse and Quebec City's Le Soleil, also says the debate had no real effect on voting intentions.
And that was among voters who claimed to have actually watched the debate - which most voters didn't.

The leaders and their handlers weren't the only ones spinning the media after the debate. The next day, the consortium of television networks that broadcast the debate crowed about the "exceptional" ratings it had obtained, which it attributed to the renewed format.
In case you missed the debate, it made question period in the National Assembly seem decorous by comparison. The format was similar to the one used for the recent federal election shouting matches. It allowed the leaders to interrupt each other and speak at the same time for most of the two-hour duration, while the moderator struggled to maintain order.
The networks thought all the verbal conflict would be more entertaining. "Cacophonous" was the adjective most often used to describe the experience by the commentators who were forced to sit through it.
And before the networks use the ratings for this year's debate to justify retaining the dumbed-down format for future ones, they should take a closer look at the numbers.
The preliminary ratings released by the consortium indicate that 1.986 million viewers watched the debate. But that amounts to only about a third of the 5.6 million eligible voters in last year's general election.
The debate drew 136,000 more viewers than the top-rated show in Quebec the previous week, a game show called Le Banquier. But that show, on TVA, faced stiff competition, which the debate didn't.
The debate was carried by all the French-language networks except trash-TV TQS, which offered a couple of reality shows as an alternative.
This year's debate was watched by 253,000 more viewers than last year's. But that's probably due less to the new format than to better scheduling.
The March 2007 debate was up against a Canadiens hockey game on RDS, which the French-language cable channel says was watched by 628,000 viewers. RDS retained all but 88,000 viewers from its average audience for the Canadiens' 2006-07 season.
This year's debate, however, was scheduled for an evening when there was no hockey game on television. That left an additional potential audience for the debate of 776,000, the average number of viewers for Canadiens games on RDS this season. But the actual audience for the debate increased from last year by only one-third of that number.
So the increase in the ratings for this year's debate doesn't prove that the voters prefer a format that insults their intelligence. In fact, the format may have turned off more potential viewers than it attracted, when there is already concern about voter apathy.
Yesterday, chief electoral officer Marcel Blanchet, concerned by reports of voter boycotts of the Dec. 8 election, issued a special appeal to electors to do their duty. One possible sign of a record-low turnout is that only half as many absentee voters have registered to cast ballots by mail as in the last election.
There's another reason why the networks and the parties should abandon this experiment in future campaigns.
For political as well as practical reasons, there's only one debate during a Quebec campaign when the leaders speak directly to the voters, and it's in French. And for the 18 per cent of Quebecers who do not speak French most often at home, it can be especially difficult to understand when two or three people speak at the same time (which also makes simultaneous translation impossible).

A more orderly debate would facilitate the participation of non-francophone citizens in the political process. It would also be more informative for all voters, and more respectful of the dignity of the participants.

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