LIGHTS, CAMERA… SCREAM!
By Sanjay Pinto

When the usual suspects are paraded on prime time tv debates, on which I too figure, not as an anchor anymore, but a panelist, I cannot help wondering if we can also form a cricket team! If two is company, and three a crowd, then would ten ‘experts’ and spokespersons with an anchor become a mob? Having been on national television for two decades myself, I find this template a turn off. For discerning viewers, at least. Not just the sheer number of panelists popping out of boxes on the screen like pigeon holes but a veritable slanging match that national discourse has degenerated into.

My professor of jurisprudence at Law School used to harp on three sides to every dispute – yours, the other party and the right side! The idea to have so many voices is to make the debate look holistic, comprehensive, dynamic and all that. But if you dissect the show, you will realise that it’s not a  case of  ‘more the merrier’ but ‘more the drearier’. On a one hour show, on Prime Time, commercial breaks would usually account for roughly ten minutes. That leaves you with fifty minutes of talk time. Of this, knock off  about seven minutes for the show sting, preamble (which can sometimes be a long sermon) headlines, introduction of guests and teasers. Out of the forty odd minutes, questions from the anchor and pontification and sound bites and footage of stories may run into another  fifteen minutes. You are then left with about half an hour. On any panel, at least two ‘experts’ will be more than pedantic and get personal with each other, eating into half the time available. The remaining eight guests who sit patiently for their turn, the only sign of distress in the form of the finger going up like a cricket umpire, will have  hardly fifteen minutes to state their views, at an average of less than two minutes each. There are times when extremely civil panelists who do not take the anchor’s cue: “I’m opening up the debate” or are schooled to rudely interrupt others, don’t get a chance to have their say at all.  On even the most contentious topic, three or four panelists should do. That will do justice to their presence and time. But it’s an ingredient of an orderly debate. Is that out of the studio window?

When was the last time you saw a mature debate minus the brazen display of lung power? And guess what? The ratings for these prime time slanging matches are much higher than the other time bands when regular news stories are aired. It proves that like the average Indian voter has become corrupt, the average tv news viewer has become a tad voyeuristic. So when anchors rile up panelists and tempers run high, the viewers seem to lap up what observers may dismiss as a ‘circus’. Often, the outrage is an act to win eyeballs. Few believe me when I tell them that some of the most vociferous anchors, who happen to be my former colleagues, are actually soft spoken otherwise! While I usually keep  calm, avoid speaking out of turn and have always believed in logic, fact and wit to counter arguments, I confess to having lost my cool a couple of times when uncouth speakers have tried to interject and drown my voice. I guess that Voltaire gem: “I do not agree with what you have to say but will defend to death your right to say it” is lost on these souls who seem intolerant to any contrarian view.

As a television news channel Editor not too long ago, here’s an inside perspective. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to put together an hour long live debate than to commission ten special reports from across the country, requiring reporters to fan out on ground zero to get you real news. In this age of large scale retrenchment and cost cutting and the new concept of ‘mojo’ – mobile journalism, where a tv correspondent plays solitary reaper – reporting, shooting with a selfie stick, editing and uplinking, the jobs of camerapersons, editors and broadcast engineers, and indeed OB Vans and Bureau offices are sadly on the chopping block. Forget the cost of travel and shooting and editing news stories to make up an hour. It requires a whole gamut of news meetings, vetting of scripts, editing, inserting graphics and other post production work. All you need for a live debate is a controversial topic centred around a news development, quick research by your team, a few calls from the Guest Desk to panelists and presto, you have a show!

This disturbing template on national television – of a big group of panelists screaming their guts out, has spread like a virus to regional  channels. Some of these local anchors seem to fashion themselves after their national counterparts. That said, there are honourable exceptions among channels, anchors and panelists.

You don’t have to shout to be heard. Often, folks raise their voices when they have little or nothing to say. There is more to an informed debate than belting out a few punchlines that the channels’ social media desk can tweet out. The patience to listen to another view, the grace to accept a misconception and the courage to be politically accurate and not politically correct is what distinguishes a good debater from a demagogue.

But who cares for old fashioned decency when TRPs are the bottomline? That’s the new low. 

(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Commentator, Public Speaking Mentor and Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)