Why is it so boring?
Why are most panel discussions on Indian television so boring? I’ve been racking my brains to try and figure out why we get it so wrong and Americans get it so right. Of course, this is not to say that all Indian discussions are dull. I have been on a fair number of interesting ones myself. But I don’t think anyone seriously disputes that the average standard could do with some improvement.
Here are some thoughts. There are broadly two kinds of guests who work on such shows: the players and the commentators.
That is to say, if we are upset about why the government included a reference to Balochistan in the joint declaration, we would like to hear from one of the following: the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the National Security Advisor or the Foreign Secretary.
Not one of these people will agree to appear on a TV discussion programme. In the case of this government, none of these figures even believes that he owes the people of India an explanation.
It was not always so. In the early days of TV substantial figures were willing to come into the studio and explain themselves on panel discussions.
In 1997, I once had Inder Gujral (who was then Prime Minister) in the studio in Noida. Around the same time, as the BJP was ascending to power I had Jaswant Singh, George Fernandes, Murli Manohan Joshi, Pramod Mahajan from the NDA and such major Congress figures as Narasimha Rao (he had just stepped down as PM) Pranab Mukherjee and P Chidambaran in the NDTV studio in Greater Kailash.
This was no reflection on my standing. In those days, important people were willing to come to TV studios and engage with their critics.
No longer. I doubt if I could get any of these people to a studio these days. (Though I have to say that I was impressed to see Chidambaram on the Buck Stops Here.)
So who do you get now? Well, basically, you get the punks. Each party has three or four spokesmen who are fielded on every channel. They are rarely figures of any consequence, they don’t know anything and they go from studio to studio and channel to channel saying the same things.
Worse still, few of them are very bright. Some are actually morons. For every Abhishek Singhvi or Rajiv Pratap Rudy who will engage with you on an intellectual level, you have to put up with ten buffoons. So no interesting debate is possible.
In the West, they choose independent commentators who are witty and articulate. Here we invite print journos many of whom are pompous bores. I can count the articulate TV-friendly print-journalists on the fingers of one hand.
But the same bores are called night after to make up the numbers.
The anchors and producers are to blame too. They make many basic mistakes. None of them watches TV. A guest on NDTV may just have come off CNN-IBN but nobody at NDTV will have seen the competition. So the guest will be asked the same questions and will give the same answers.
Then, most of them do no research at all and have very little in the way of political background. The veterans (Karan Thapar, Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai etc.) will know enough to remind guests that they have changed their positions. But many anchors have no clue.
Too many producers are frustrated or thwarted anchors. I was recently a guest on a discussion show on NewsX where the poor anchor could not hear a word that the guests were saying because some harridan of a producer kept shouting things in his ear. Finally, the anchor had the sense to take off his ear-piece.
Also, there is a danger of an anchor’s ego taking over. Whenever I’ve anchored a show with guests, my guiding principle has always been: viewers tune in to see the guests; the anchors’ job is restricted to getting the best out of the guests.
The problem is that too many anchors are too full of themselves. They think that guests tune in to see them. They believe that it is their job to lecture viewers or to harangue or interrupt guests.
No real discussion is possible under these circumstances. So why then do we have so many discussion programmes on Indian TV. Simple. They are cheapest form of TV to produce. That’s why they proliferate.