Monday, December 19, 2005

The Dating Game

Doesn't the new debate format remind you of "The Dating Game"?

"Leader #1, how would you describe yourself?"

"Leader #2, same question. "

"Leader #3, given the chance, what would you do to convince me that you're the man for me?"

Forget about discussing the content of the debates since not much happened and none of it will matter when phase two of the campaign begins in January. Let's address what everyone is eager to examine in detail - the format.

Debate: (n) is defined by Oxford as "a formal discussion in a public meeting or legislature, in which opposing arguments are presented".

Technically, the new format fits within the definition. A selection of voters were asked to videotape their questions. The tape was played for the leaders and they were given an opportunity to answer. A moderator could add to the question if they wished. Hardly a traditional debate format but it worked in a certain sense.

Viewers at least got to clearly hear each leader recite what's available on their website, contrary to the debates of the last election where we were essentially treated to a shout-off. The best part of this year's debates was the time limits which were strictly enforced. Speaker's microphones were cut off in mid-sentence although if you listened carefully you could still hear the last part of their explanations presumably picked up by the moderator's microphone.

Not So Easy

Debate organizers are faced with a tricky problem. Here are just some of the issues:

  • Make the debates relevant to voters (ie. Shorter)
  • Prevent a live audience from turning the debate into a circus (This isn't a rally.)
  • Design pretty podiums (See whether the candidates could think on their feet)
  • Avoid shouting matches between candidates (That's only appropriate in the House of Commons)
  • Ensure that candidates can get their message across (Why waste money on commercials?)
  • Get all parties to agree to a format (that each party thinks is best for their candidate)
  • Appease the media (with at least the hope that a candidate makes a potentially fatal mistake or lands a knockout punch against another candidate.)

    Interviewed later, many of the questioners were dissatisfied with the leader's answers. Here's a typical example to illustrate their frustration:

    "Thank you for that very interesting question. Before answering it I would like to briefly mention that "insert candidates favorite issue or other redirection trick here" ...

    Journalists were luke warm on the format and viewership was down by half from the previous election.

    Tweaking the Format

    What's a voter to do? Let's see if the gameshow model of debate organization has any further solutions to offer us.

    First of all, during the debate, have the questioner decide whether a leader answered the question or not. This may not prevent a leader from skating around an issue but at least the viewers would be aware in real time that it was happening. Perhaps installing one of those gameshow counters in front of every podium and awarding a point for a question answered appropriately would help.

    Why not go one step further? Instead of giving all the power to the questioner, equip the studio audience with a real-time voting device and have the results instantly appear like they do in "Who wants to be a millionaire?" Audience, its time to vote.

    How about introducing a lightning round where more questions are asked and less time is provided for answers. Let's see how well they think on their feet. Give voters at least a glimpse of the real character of the next prime minister.

    Remember the movie "Quiz Show"? It told the story of the scandal surrounding the game show
    "Twenty One". It provides the genesis for another debate format improvement.

    What about putting each candidate in a sound-proof booth. They would only hear whatever question was directed at them and that would be the only time they could answer. They wouldn't hear what the other candidates had to say and would be faced with a classic
    "prisoner's dilemma". Are the other candidates skating or answering? Are they attacking someone or sticking to the issues? Wouldn't that make for an interesting debate?

    Will it ever happen? Probably not. But at least it's worth debating it.

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