Near the end of the federal Tory leadership race, candidates’ debates aired for successive nights from Toronto, first on TVO, then Newsworld.

I watched one at home and attended the other in person, curious if it would make a difference. The debaters, questions and answers (though not the hosts) were the same, though Newsworld had a studio audience.

I was surprised at how distinct the experiences were.

Watching them live, on set, the candidates seemed — and it’s hard to put this right — far less impressive than on TV the night before. More real, more present (of course), yet tentative, less persuasive.

Partly it was context. At home, the screen seems to be there only to serve them; on set, they wait their turn, behind flimsy podiums, slave to lights, cameras, fidgeting as they do. It’s also how the screen tends to both flatten and inflate them: each person more or less fills it when he’s on, so you get no sense of actual size.

But there was something else. On TV, they seemed to be . . . inevitable. If they were there, it must be because they should be. But in the studio, you could think: Who are these guys, and why am I bothering to be here with them?

There is an answer: Oh yeah, they’re part of the political process. But on TV, the query hardly arises. They’re simply there — given — whether you watch or not.

Let me compare this to the experience of attending a sports event live, versus watching it on TV, both of which I do, perhaps too often.

For me, the difference is: On TV, the outcome always feels predetermined, even if you don’t know what it is. It’s like a suspenseful movie. It never quite feels as if anything could happen. That’s why one sometimes flips the game off, then tunes back on: to get to the inevitable outcome, like fast-forwarding.

But when you’re at the rink or ballpark, the sense of contingency is total. Mats [Sundin] may or may not make that last little cut, or flick, and the puck may or may not catch the net.

It’s the same with who wins or loses. When you watch a hitter like Nomar Garciaparra on TV, the nervous shuffle he does with his feet seems ritualized, part of a set process; when you’re a few rows away, he looks edgy and frayed.

Assuming this has any truth, what accounts for that sense of contingency live but not on TV?

Well, TV is an image, of course. Mats on TV is an electronic pattern that represents the real Mats. Yet we’re seeing him in real time, aren’t we? It’s simultaneous transmission, not a movie. So why does it feel a bit like a movie? Maybe because the transmission is not truly simultaneous, but only virtually so.

There is a tiny lag, which we have grown more aware of through, say, battlefield reports from Iraq, in which the reporter in the field must wait a few seconds to hear and answer, so that what we see on the screen, from the rink or wherever, is already set in stone, if only by a fraction, and we somehow know it.

Only the live event which we witness live is truly, truly contingent. Everything else is after the fact, a reproduction, if only by a whisker.

Now let me shift back to politics and ask of so-called democratic deficits — cynicism about politicians; dropping voter participation rates; the belief that nothing will ever change — whether these have something to do with a politics largely practised via TV, a medium in which the fix always seems to be in, on an intuitive level, even during Stanley Cup overtimes? There are good reasons for skepticism but are they reinforced by the medium itself, leading to even more passivity?

Social psychologist Eric Erikson once suggested that political cynicism among U.S. voters might reflect the early toilet training common there, which led to a sense of lack of control over one’s choices. He admitted it sounded silly, even as he wrote it, but who knows what goes into these behavioural shadings?

Why are politicians so annoying when they stay unfazed and on-message no matter how you press and pester them? That’s their job. But they are not just packaged and handled by experts; they are then bubble-wrapped in a medium that by its nature projects inevitability while claiming to simultaneously transmit the real, live thing.

It’s an unfair advantage. I don’t know if Lincoln or Disraeli were packaged, but if they were, at least it was their bodies in the packing, not after-the-fact, inaccessible reproductions.

“It felt like a movie,” always has a note of despair because of the sense that life is pre-scripted, the deck is stacked. Compare that to live theatre, in which the audience can affect a performance, if only by their attention or inattention.

In the extreme case, I suppose, they could even intervene: “Hold on, King Agamemnon. Killing your lovely daughter, Iphigenia, will not spare your people disaster . . .” Or that guy who interrupted Prince William’s birthday as Osama in drag. He didn’t just watch it on TV, as most people did — people who then got to watch him.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.