Shailesh Kapoor: Primetime News: Talking Heads or Headless Chickens?

16 Aug,2013

By Shailesh Kapoor


In the middle of a heated news television debate, the spokesperson of a top political party asserts: “Can you just give me two minutes to make my point? Then I have to go to another channel.” I was amused the first time I heard this line about two years ago. But over time, it’s become par for the course. Not too long ago, I was switching news channels and found the same spokesperson, sitting on the same seat, on four different news channels within a span of an hour, engaging with the same debate with roughly the same panelists!


Till about a decade ago, news television was about reportage, accompanied by analysis, peppered with bytes that added value to it. NDTV Profit has been repeating old episodes of The World This Week as a part of the 25-year celebration of the group, and the difference between the approach to news then and now is striking, to say the least.


I’m not suggesting that debates-heavy news programming on primetime is bad. In fact, if done well, it can be significantly more engaging than the more passive classical reportage format. But for that, you need talking heads who can debate – authoritatively and intelligently. And the current lot falls short on both counts.


It’s evident to any regular news viewer that the spokespersons designated by the top political parties, the likes of Sanjay Jha, Nirmala Sitaraman and Rahul Narvekar, have no real authority at their disposal. They are foot soldiers, thrown in a hostile situation and left to dodge the missiles being hurled at them. To make themselves heard in the cacophony may well be their only KRA.


Talking heads from regional parties, such as Derek O’Brien from Trinamool, clearly display more authority, though it is another matter that half of the time, he is defending the indefensible.


On intelligence (and I don’t mean IQ here but political acumen), you can sense that parties have relaxed it as a criteria for the choice of spokespersons. From Abhishek Manu Singhvi to Sanjay Jha is quite a big shift, for example. It seems there are too many channels and you need an army to share the “workload.”


In any case, the real voices that matter choose not to come to primetime television shows. Rarely would you see a minister making an appearance in a one-on-one with one of the top anchors. Because they have made themselves so inaccessible, they are treated with near reverence when they indeed make that odd appearance.


Interestingly, the same revering anchors go ballistic with the lesser mortals, read spokespersons. It’s as if the anchors start their show licking their lips in anticipation of the “tough questions” they will hurl at their guests.  Nidhi Razdan’s latest interview with British MP Barry Gardiner proves that the infection to be mean has spread thick and fast. Blame Arnab, of course.


I believe political parties will do well to focus on quality rather than quantity, i.e., present themselves only on 2-3 channels on any given night, but send erudite and articulate talking heads, who can rise above petty out-shouting, to deliver the goods. It will serve the parties well in the long run.


Channels, on the other hand, will do well to limit a debate to 3-4 talking heads. There is no empirical evidence to suggest more talking heads means a more engaging debate or more ratings. A leaner panel will, in fact, encourage quality politicians to participate.


Lest I should be misunderstood, I am not advocating a “reduce noise” recipe. I (kind of) like the noise of primetime television. It is provocative and stimulating in its own right. But if the noisemakers are just headless chicken, the point is lost. We need noisemakers who are also newsmakers!


Shailesh Kapoor is founder and CEO of media insights firm Ormax Media. He spent nine years in the television industry before turning entrepreneur. The views expressed here are his own. He can be reached at his Twitter handle @shaileshkapoor


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