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Cristina Santana (L), Pasha Kovalev (C) and Anya Garnis (R) in an episode of So You Think You Can Dance. (Globe files/Globe files)
Cristina Santana (L), Pasha Kovalev (C) and Anya Garnis (R) in an episode of So You Think You Can Dance. (Globe files/Globe files)

Simon Houpt

Should federal leaders' debate be modelled on reality TV? Add to ...

Should this week's federal leaders' debates be modelled after the television show So You Think You Can Dance?

Broadcaster Trina McQueen made that not-entirely-tongue-in-cheek suggestion during a roundtable discussion at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University in the fall of 2009.

"In talking about debates, we are talking about a TV show," argued Ms. McQueen, a former head of CBC's newsgathering operations and of CTV Inc. "The goals and the results might be advancing democracy and citizenship, but it is still a TV show.

"It is not news, nor a documentary, hardly ever drama, and not really a debate - it is a highly choreographed competition where competitors vie to become the winner. More like 'So you think you can lead Canada.'"

Forty-three years after the first Canadian federal leaders' debate, TV producers, academics and politicians are still struggling to come up with the ideal format. "I think each debate is a kind of reaction to the debate before," said Mark Bulgutch, the executive producer of this week's faceoffs.

The 2004 debates were declared a televisual disaster because of the free-for-all that saw four party leaders spend two hours talking over each other. For the next election debates, only one leader's microphone was open at a time, which created a stiff series of brief speeches. "It was dead boring," Mr. Bulgutch said. "There wasn't any back-and-forth. It wasn't truly a debate."

The 2008 round featured five federal leaders seated at a table, creating a less combative - and to some, less engaging - tone.

This week's debates return to a more classic model, with the leaders standing behind lecterns. The evenings will unfold in six 19-minute hybrid segments, beginning with a six-minute one-on-one between two leaders followed by a free-for-all closely monitored by producers to ensure equal time for each of the four men.

"I don't know if it's ever going to be perfect," allows Mr. Bulgutch. "Perfect's a hard standard."

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