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Rick Mercer watches the torch go by in Rossland, British Columbia, Canada while taping segments for the Rick Mercer Report during the town's winter carnival, which was moved to coincide with the arrival of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Torch Relay. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Rick Mercer watches the torch go by in Rossland, British Columbia, Canada while taping segments for the Rick Mercer Report during the town's winter carnival, which was moved to coincide with the arrival of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Torch Relay. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

When satire shows go off the air, do Canadian voters tune out? Add to ...

If Michael Ignatieff and Jack Layton really wanted to defeat Stephen Harper, they might have been advised to wait until the new TV season in the fall.

For the first two weeks after the writ was dropped, CBC's George Stroumboulopoulos opened each episode of his nightly talk show with a biting segment about the election campaign, taking on the parties' poor track records, hypocrisy, and empty campaigns. As he has done in the past, he teased Mr. Harper for being the only leader to refuse an invitation to sit for an interview. One show even featured a comic riff with bobble-head dolls of the five party leaders.

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Then along came the Stanley Cup playoffs, and production of George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight was put on hiatus until May 3, leaving English Canada without a TV program regularly satirizing the campaign; the last episode of The Rick Mercer Report had aired on March 28. It's a sharp contrast with the United States, where shows like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report feast upon the excesses of politicians for ratings gold, while other comedy hosts fill their monologues with mockery of Washington.

But if the absence of topical satire leaves Canadian audiences less entertained than Americans, it may also have starker implications. In recent years, "soft news" shows, which also include chat fests such as The Oprah Winfrey Show and The View, have become recognized drivers of voter engagement in the United States, suggesting that Canada's democracy may be suffering along with our funny bones.

"The real power of these shows, the fact that they're entertaining, is what draws people to them and gets them to pay attention," said Michael Parkin, a Canadian-born assistant professor of politics at Oberlin College in Ohio. "That is generally a very positive thing."

Matthew Baum, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has written with his former researcher Angela Jamison about the four "Oprah effects," which together trace a path from attracting voters' attention to increasing their knowledge of issues, helping to shape attitudes, and finally affecting the likelihood of voting.

Nobody is suggesting poor voter turnout in Canada is due to a lack of televised satire. Still, turnout for U.S. presidential elections went to 61.6 per cent in 2008 from 51.7 per cent in 1996 - the period in which entertainment programs such as The Daily Show fully embraced the country's political to-and-fro - while Canadian federal turnout went to 58.8 per cent in 2008 from 67 per cent in 1997.

There is no way to know for certain. A small industry of political science studies blossomed after the 2008 U.S. election, which observed high viewership for candidate interviews on talk shows, as well as a devastating caricature of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin by comedian Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, but there has been no corresponding rush to study the role of pop culture on Canadian politics.

Then again, none of the Canadian leaders is as deeply entwined with pop culture as Barack Obama, whose 2007-08 ascent was supported by viral videos by the rocker Will.I.Am and a coterie of celebrities, as well as Internet-based character Obama Girl, whose bombshell curves and irrepressible affection for Mr. Obama were seen in videos during the 2007-08 election cycle by tens of millions. (The New York Times wrote that the original Obama Girl video, "probably had more to do with shaping Obama's complicated public image - young and exciting but maybe a bit shallow - than any Internet appeal devised by the candidate's own aides.")

In the absence of professionally produced material, some regular Canadians have stepped into the breach, including a group of Vancouver-based performers who unleashed a series of videos critical of Mr. Harper that directs viewers to the website rubbishharperdid.com. In perhaps typically self-mocking Canadian fashion, their videos play up the fact that they are not celebrities.

Geoff D'Eon, a former producer of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, recalled recently that his show's characters first got on TV during the CBC's 1993 election night broadcast. The producer of the newscast, he said, "bought into the idea that good political coverage does not always have to wear a starched shirt. The cast, live on national television, danced a conga-line around the Halifax TV studio singing 'Mulroney is no more. Hey! Mulroney is no more.' It was groundbreaking, provocative, and fun."

Elections aren't held for the fun of the citizenry, but having fun may help make them more successful. "Anything that can be done to engage voters, particularly young voters, is a positive thing," said Oberlin's Dr. Parkin. "And while it may seem like a really inane way to get people interested, if it's a gateway to further interest, then it's good."

Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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