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Apr
14 2011

Behind the Scenes of the Federal Leaders’ Debate

Syndicated from: Steve Paikin

They are the longest and most nerve-wracking four minutes of your life.   The four major party leaders were ushered into the debate studio in Ottawa at 6:56 p.m. last Tuesday night.   The debate started at 7 p.m.   What does one do for those four minutes?   The leaders are looking at their notes, their shoes, the walls --- anything not to make eye contact with one another.   Mind you, not Gilles Duceppe. The Bloc Quebecois leader knows that during this debate, he’s playing with the house’s money.   In fact, during the “walk-through” earlier in the day, when the leaders check their podiums, camera positions, and wardrobe, it was Duceppe who was easily the most relaxed.   “Tonight is my 14th debate,” he joked. “And tomorrow will be my 15th.” Then, he started counting them all, as the rest of us marveled at how the man who would break up Canada has actually participated in almost as many Canadian leaders’ debates as all of his opponents combined.   I’ve had the honour of moderating two previous federal leaders’ debates, and both times, the four minutes of waiting for the top of the clock can be agonizing. It’s not an exaggeration to say that in 2006 --- the first time I ever participated in a leaders’ debate at any level --- I felt like vomiting during those four minutes. Yes, I was that petrified.   So I cracked a joke.   “I don’t know what you guys are so nervous about,” I said to them. “You’ve all done this before. I never have.”   For all the criticism that he’s wooden and humourless, it was actually then opposition leader Stephen Harper who had a funny comeback.   “Yeah,” he said, “but you’ve got someone talking in your ear to help you. We’ve got nothing.”   Jack Layton jokes during the midday walk-through that he might whack one of his opponents with his cane if they get out of hand.   In 2008, with five leaders at a table rather than behind podiums, I did something different to break the tension.   “I didn’t do this last time and really regretted it,” I told them all. “I want a picture for a souvenir. So smile everyone.”   And smile they did. Very nervous smiles. But it passed some time and got us through those four minutes. Gilles Duceppe checks out his podium during the walk-through. To his left in the white shirt is Mark Bulgutch, the debate's executive producer, and the man 'in my ear" throughout the debate.   What did I do this year? Well, as it happened, my mother turned 75 the day after the debate. So I pulled out my video camera, and asked them to say happy birthday to her. They politely obliged and I think that helped ease some of the tension. (And yes, mom loved the video).   For the first time ever, there was a VIP audience in the studio. Michael Ignatieff wanted his wife Szuszanna front row centre, right in his eyeline. I thought it was sweet that one of this country’s most skilled debaters wanted the security of seeing a loved one close by. Then I remembered, he’s never done this before. Not at this level.   The executive producer, Mark Bulgutch, addressed the crowd before the leaders paraded in.   “We’ve been doing technical rehearsals all afternoon,” he said, “and the sound carries very easily. The leaders will hear everything you say, so please: cell phones off, no booing, no shouting, no heckling, and no clapping. Having said that, you can be human. If someone says something funny, you’re allowed to laugh. Got it?”   You could hear a pin drop. Message received.   I snapped this shot of the leaders at 6:59 pm, just one minute before we were to go on air.   Being a few sword lengths away from the leaders, rather than watching the spectacle on television, gives the moderator a completely different experience from the viewing public. I’m often asked, “Who do you think won the debate?”   The truth is, I can never tell. There’s too much going on. You’re getting counts in your ear on how much time is left in each segment. You’re listening carefully in case any personal attacks require equal time for a response. You’re looking ahead to note the match up in the next segment. You’re making eye contact with the leaders to indicate who gets to speak next. And the executive producer is frequently in your ear, noting who needs more time.   The one criticism Mark is very sensitive to (and appropriately so) is that one leader may get more air time than another. The parties are always looking for signs that one side is being favoured. So someone actually runs a stopwatch, tracking how much speaking time each leader takes.   After a couple of questions, Mark told me: “You need to get Layton into this segment more.” And so I did. Because all the early action was directed towards Harper, the Conservative leader had taken a disproportionate amount of air time. So at one point, I had to cut him off when he tried to talk over Layton. It did occur to me at that moment, that was something not many people had ever done.   For some reason, I always seem to mess something up. The first time in 2006, I had forgotten to turn off my BlackBerry. As I was reading the introduction, I felt it buzz. How embarrassing was it going to be to have my phone ring as I was 30 seconds into my script. Somehow, I reached down and silenced it as I was reading the intro. Then the TelePrompter broke, so I quickly had to find my place in the script and keep reading, trying to make it all look seamless. Was someone trying to give me a heart attack?   This year, I somehow managed to kick the wiring out of the monitor on my desk, again, while reading the intro, meaning I spent the entire two hours flying blind. I couldn’t see the videos of the questions and couldn’t see what shots were being used during the broadcast. I spent the first five minutes of the debate playing with the wires, trying to reattach them, hoping the camera wasn’t catching me trying to play technician. Ultimately, I gave up.   Was the debate a good television experience? I don’t know. I never saw it.

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