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Party leaders ahead of a French-language debate in April 2011. Pressure from media companies could lead to a change in debate format for this year’s federal election.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Control over the federal party leaders' debates, currently held by a handful of broadcasters, is being challenged by proposals from rival media companies – and Canada's three major parties are open to these offers.

Televised election debates, where party leaders get a chance to square off in an unscripted manner, have traditionally been arranged by a consortium of major broadcasters including CTV, CBC and Global.

This time, however, other news outlets are hoping to stage their own debates. The Globe and Mail is one of the organizations that is submitting a rival proposal this week to host a full leaders' debate. Maclean's magazine, owned by Rogers, and Quebec-based TVA have sent proposals to parties, as has the broadcast consortium.

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The consortium has been holding federal election debates for decades, but parties have sometimes chafed over the format dictated by the broadcasters. The Conservatives, in particular, are seeking more debates and a looser format. Both the NDP and the Liberals say they are open to other propositions. A spokesman for a member of the consortium says it would not suffer if there were competing debates but says the current structure allows for higher overall viewership.

The 2015 federal election is set for Oct. 19 under fixed-date election law, a change from past ballots that introduces more predictability for parties and the media.

The shakeup in debate planning this year might mean a leader's debate before the official campaign begins, such as in early September.

The Conservatives, in particular, are keen to lessen the influence of the consortium over these debates. They want to vary the format to allow more time for one-on-one debate between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

The Tories say they're confident Mr. Harper can top Mr. Trudeau in live debates, and the NDP feel similarly confident about Leader Tom Mulcair's chances against Mr. Harper.

"We are in favour of more, rather than fewer, debates," an NDP official said. A second New Democratic staffer added: "Tom has been pretty clear that he'll debate the PM, pretty much any time, anywhere. Bring it on."

Kate Purchase, director of communications for Mr. Trudeau, said the Liberals are not ruling anything out. "We're open to any proposals, but we have not committed to anything at this point."

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The broadcast consortium proposed as many as four debates, compared to two during the 2011 election campaign.

Should parties embrace the Maclean's and TVA proposals, however, this could leave the consortium with only two debates.

Another initiative, Up for Debate, has proposed a debate on women's equality and Mr. Mulcair has accepted.

Troy Reeb, senior vice-president of Global News, a member of the broadcast consortium, disputes the notion that the consortium would lose out if political leaders gravitated to debates staged by other media outlets.

"I don't think one media organization hosting a debate hurts another media organization's debate," Mr. Reeb said.

He argued, however, that the consortium, through broadcast television, would be able to make the events available to more Canadians than other media might.

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"The reality is that, as much as technology has changed, and as much as online viewership is growing, nothing can approach the level of viewership that can be obtained through broadcast television – and the making of it into an event," Mr. Reeb said.

"You can have little moments that could be spit out and you could get 10 seconds that would achieve that level of viewership, but you're not going to be able to get the full 90 minutes or two hours that's going to obtain that millions of viewers that you can through broadcast television."

Still, arranging a greater number of debates risks diluting the audience drawn by any one debate. This might reduce the power and influence of the broadcast consortium debates.

TVA, which played host to an independent leaders' debate during the Quebec election campaign last year, declined to comment on what its plans are for the federal vote.

In a recent editorial, Maclean's said: "There's no reason [the consortium] should have a monopoly over the design of leaders' debates, the subjects addressed or the leaders invited. So let's bust the broadcast consortium's monopoly."

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