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From left: Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper confer before the Maclean's National Leaders debate in Toronto, August 6, 2015.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

Last week's federal leaders' debate, created by Maclean's magazine partly as a thumb in the eye of the large TV networks that traditionally play host to the bouts, pulled in fewer than 40 per cent of the viewers who watched the 2011 English-language debate.

Maclean's parent company Rogers Media said in a statement that the Aug. 6 debate "reached 3.8 million Canadians on City, OMNI Television and CPAC," – meaning that many viewers tuned in to at least a portion of the program – "with an average audience of 1.5 million viewers."

Summertime episodes of the cooking competition show MasterChef typically attract more than 2 million viewers. CTV's Zoo, a thriller about zoo animals that turn wild and terrorize the Earth, attracted 1.4 million viewers on July 21.

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The debate between Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was the only one currently scheduled to feature all four national party leaders.

In its statement, Rogers noted that the video of the debate had been started 278,000 times on YouTube, Facebook, Macleans.ca and OMNI.ca, with 4.1 million total minutes viewed – meaning that, on average, each online viewer watched just less than 15 minutes of the two-hour event.

In contrast, the lone English-language debate of the past federal election, which included Mr. Harper, NDP Leader Jack Layton, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, reached 10.6 million viewers, with an average per-minute audience of 3.85 million.

That debate aired April 12, 2011 on CBC-TV/Radio-Canada, CTV, Global Television and TVA – the four members at the time of the so-called broadcast consortium.

This year, the consortium, which is open to whichever media companies wish to join and currently comprises CBC-TV/Radio-Canada, CTV, Global and Télé-Québec, has been told by the Conservative Party that Mr. Harper will not attend either its English-language debate, scheduled for Oct. 8, or its Oct. 7 French-language debate. Mr. Mulcair has indicated that he is also unlikely to attend.

The Conservatives said they boycotted the consortium debates in favour of what a spokesman described as "the diversity and innovation inherent in different debate sponsors and approaches." Two more alternative debates are currently scheduled.

But, while TV viewers are increasingly moving their video consumption from traditional TV channels to online platforms, the relatively small viewership for last week's debate raises questions about voters' ability to hear directly from the federal leaders.

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Neither of the remaining debates currently scheduled with the leaders of the three leading political parties seems likely to attract anywhere near what the large broadcasters typically capture. The Globe and Mail is playing host to a debate Sept. 17 in partnership with Google Canada and the public affairs channel CPAC. It will be seen on YouTube, GlobeandMail.com, CPAC-TV and any other broadcaster who wishes to air the event.

The Munk Debates will hold a leaders' debate on Sept. 28.

(CTV's parent company BCE Inc. owns a 15 per cent share of The Globe and Mail.)

Editor's note: The consortium's English-language debate will take place on Oct. 8. The French-language debate will take place on Oct. 7. The Munk Debates will hold a leaders' debate on Sept. 28.  Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.

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