Televised political debates have become a regular and noteworthy application of democratic action. Since US presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John Kennedy appeared live on TV in 1960, the formula has been adopted in and adapted for national audiences almost everywhere. TV debates are much loved by political journalists – and their editors – hoping for a headline-making line.
Of course, political consultants know this and TV debates are rarely impromptu events. Teams of writers and coaches prepare candidates thoroughly. Make-up and hair stylists are always on hand. By consequence, broadcasters and their audiences find live televised political debates something of a snore.
The five European Commission presidency candidates will appear in a TV debate on May 15th, live in primetime from Brussels, organized by Eurovision, the production arm of the public broadcasting support group European Broadcasting Union (EBU). "As public service media it is our role to... bring democracy to audiences," said EBU Director General Ingrid Deltenre in a statement. "The EBU is proud to offer our members an opportunity to bring the issues that matter closer to citizens in an exciting and pioneering format." (See EBU presser here) Pan-European news channel Euronews broadcast a debate with four of the five candidates April 28th. Colorful left-wing Greek candidate Alexis Tsipras will participate in the Eurovision debate.
Only a few public broadcasters signed up to broadcast the TV debate on main channels, offered with simultaneous translation in 23 languages. German public TV networks ARD and ZDF shunted it off to cable, satellite and internet channel Phoenix. The BBC is placing it on the Parliament channel.
French public TV France Télévisions president Rémy Pflimlin declined to broadcast the Eurovision debate telecast, preferring to produce non-primetime supplementary news programs. When questioned he explained that France Télévisions is a French, not European, broadcaster. Private sector broadcaster Canal+ announced it would carry the debate on its all-news digital, satellite and web channel i>Télé.
Italian public broadcaster RAI newscaster Monica Maggioni will moderate the Eurovision debate, which will include social media coverage. Euronews reported its Twitter feed gathered 10,000 messages within the first hour of its debate program.
All broadcasters want fireworks, of sorts, from political debate broadcasts. Why else would they stuff Big Brother or The Voice? After protracted negotiations among broadcasters and politicians the first live political debates in the UK were held in 2010. Party advisors are entering that phase now with UK local elections set for next year. The big question, sidestepped by all so far, is whether or not the extreme-right UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farge, always quick and colorful with one-liners, will be invited. Broadcasters and headline writers are salivating as political consultants cringe. Euro-skeptic UKIP is expected to fare well in European Parliament elections.
Televised political debates can go tragically wrong. In India a debate last week among regional politicians being recorded for later broadcast ended horribly as a protester doused himself with gasoline, ran to the stage, lit a match and grabbed one of the debate participants. Both died.