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English debate's viewership gets hefty boost over 2008 Add to ...

It's been billed as the election that nobody wants, but almost four million Canadians tuned in to watch the federal leaders square off in their only English confrontation of the campaign.

Ratings monitor BBM Canada said that 3.85 million viewers watched the debate Tuesday night, an increase of 26 per cent compared with 2008's showdown. The number jumped to 10.6 million viewers once those who only watched a portion of the debate were included.

"This suggests this may not actually be an election nobody wants," said Richard Johnston, a University of British Columbia professor who specializes in political engagement. "Or at least now that there is an election, they have realized what is at stake."

The debate received an extra shot of publicity over the last two weeks after the broadcast consortium - comprised of top newsroom executives at CBC/Radio-Canada, CTV, Global and TVA - cut Green Party leader Elizabeth May because her party lacks a seat in the House of Commons.

"With social media there is a lot more information about the election available," Prof. Johnston said. "That seems to lead to more actual engagement."

The consortium also tried to tap in to a demand for a direct confrontation between the party leaders, which was stoked on Twitter as Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff flirted with the idea of a one-on-one debate.

When that idea was nixed, the consortium changed the debate's format. With each new topic, two leaders were chosen to debate directly while the others watched.

The debate drew more viewers than a typical television program, although it was broadcast on several different channels at once. In the last week measured by BBM Canada, the top-rated show in Canada was The Big Bang Theory on CTV, with 3.2 million viewers.

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