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Sunday, 12 March 2017

The making of the great Indian news panel

What makes people appear night after night on television news panels, especially if they’re not spokespersons of a party or an organisation? More so, when they are sometimes being screamed at and many times just talking over the drone of other voices? The reason, it seems, could be anything from Rs 2,000 to Rs 30,000 per appearance. It could also be to build a profile that could push your career as a lawyer, or as a politician elevate you to the position of a party spokesperson someday. Or it could just be vanity.

And, then, there is always the possibility that you actually have a valuable idea, insight or hypothesis to share with the TV viewing audience.

Delving into the world of panel selection, panel discussions and the pull of TV was an eye-opener. I spoke with guest coordination heads, team members, anchors and reporters across TV channels. In many cases, the people I spoke to have worked for more than one network. They will remain nameless and individual channels will not be identified. The individuals who were okay being quoted have been.

Money matters
I was surprised to discover that columnist and author Shobha De is paid Rs 20,000 for each appearance on a TV news panel, not quite a penny for her thoughts eh? Some newly-retired men in uniform or security/defence experts can get up to Rs 30,000 for a single appearance. Imagine how I feel now since I get a cheque of Rs 1,000 to 2,000 (if at all I do) for the rare occasion when I’m asked to be on a panel. My opinion is worth five or 10 per cent that of De’s! I’m devastated.

De tells us, “I strongly believe that a person's time and opinion contain considerable value. Just as I am paid to express my opinion in print through my columns, I expect to be paid by a channel, too. The medium is different. But content is content. Time is valuable. Opinions are invaluable! The fee is just a token amount, and I insist on it.” Fair enough.

The new specialists - guest relation experts
“Pehle sab bolte the main military ya Air Force mein jaunga, koi doctor ya engineer banna chahta tha. These days everyone wants to be an anchor or reporter but 90 per cent production mein chale jate hain. Media institutes teach you all sorts of things but no one teaches you to be a guest-relations professional, which is the backbone of prime time. Guest relations know people across the board,” says a guest-relations professional working for one of the leading news networks.

“I look at it globally and world over people are doing talk TV format. Overdependence on panel discussions are not unique to Indian TV news,” says Barkha Dutt, one of the most well-known faces of TV news in India who hosts The Buck Stops Here, which is usually a panel discussion.

In such a scenario, putting together interesting panels and “guest co-ordination” as a management skill is important. To do this effectively, you require charm, cunning, news and current affairs knowledge, and lots and lots of practice.

Since there are so many shows and not all are prime time or high-profile, putting a panel together night after night is no easy task. Many guests value their time enough to not want to appear on a not-so-well-known anchor’s panel. But the fire of the 24-hour news cycle must be fuelled and if your timber starts choosing which kiln it wants to be roasted in, you have a problem.

Guest desks have to put three to four panels together on a single channel every day and there are over a dozen channels (Hindi and English) big and small. And this is a regular news day. On the day of the budget or Indo-Pak talks or any such big event, you need bigger panels. Do the math.

One trick that almost all guest desks deploy to convince commentators reluctant to appear on non-prime-time shows is the carrot of being on prime time with a Barkha, Arnab or Rajdeep sometime in the future.

The promise of a seat on one of the prime-time anchors’ shows is a big draw. So, lobbying and cultivating contacts is not a one-way street with journalists being the needy ones. It works the other way too. It appears to be a final frontier for some to feel that they have arrived as pundits, analysts or “socialites” if they are on Barkha’s or Arnab’s panel. Something that is almost worthy of being put on a resume.

Being charming and smooth may help guest coordinators get people into studios but it doesn’t protect them from the googlies that sometimes stump them. “We have to put together a panel with both sides of an argument or issue. We do our best, but some guests do a 180 degree and change their position when on air. Then we get screwed.” More than one guest coordination professional complained of situations in which panelists agreed to toe a particular line to get on TV and once cameras were rolling live, said something completely different.

Make on TV
“Kya bataun Abhinandan bhai, kai toh aise besharam hote hain ki prime time mein gaadi film city mein park kar ke baithe rehte hain aur sms karte rehte hain ki kab bulaoge,” this is how one aghast guest coordinator informed me about the new breed of image builders – they could be young politicians, activists, lawyers or “socialites”. For those not in the know, Film City is the area just across the Delhi border in Noida where most TV news networks have their studios.  Social climbing or political climbing in a world connected by screens rather than personal relations means that TV screens can elevate or catapult you into an aspirational space.

Answering an unrelated question (about charging for panel discussions) De is spot on when she says: “I am not a politician looking for a constituency. I am not a lobbyist working for a bunch of big-ticket clients. I am not a Supreme Court lawyer hoping to hike my profile and fees by appearing as an ‘expert’ on panels. I am not an activist. I do not represent any NGO! I am an independent voice: Just another citizen of India, representing other citizens. My time and opinion have to be respected and compensated for - or don't invite me! Anchors get paid. Channels make money. Every panel discussion and news programme has a budget. So, why should panelists not be paid a fee?”

Using TV to build a profile has been a rather successful exercise for many. Guest coordinators give me examples of people who have not only become household names, but have become official spokespersons of their party by getting invited to panels in their early days when they were little known by the public at large and totally ignored by party bigwigs.

Guest coordinators at a prominent news channel tell me that a particular person became such a regular on TV that he was not only noticed by the party leadership who would tune into prime time and see him earning his stripes, but was also rewarded with a top responsibility.

So getting on TV can get you ahead if you’re a political aspirant.

With guest coordination becoming a specialised, full-time job, there is clout associated with it.

Many struggling panelists (who aren’t offered a meaty role in the TV drama regularly, but once in a while get supporting “sidey” roles in the prime-time blockbuster space) are sweet and charming to guest coordinators, even though they used to be rude and mean in the early days of TV. While there are those “who would text us repeatedly to be adjusted on any show as a panelist, and now they won’t take our call.”

Some netas don’t forget the not-so-powerful guest coordinators who put them on the political map in the first place, after they become biggies in the party. “Ek baat maan-ni padegi ki aaj bhi agar hum bolein na, wo apni beti ki birthday party chhod ke humein ek ghanta de denge interview. Wo anchor ko No! bol denge, lekin humein nahin,” says one guest coordinator who’s been in the profession for over a decade.


Same faces, new prime time
For those who are compulsive watchers of prime time, it can become repetitive seeing the same faces move from one channel to the other. So, why don’t channels attempt to bring more diversity to prime time and give a platform to diverse voice? “Hum to kar lein, but anchors don’t want to take chances. We suggest new people but anchors say I don’t want any experiments on my show. If you try someone new and they don’t work out, we are blamed. Some people are so desperate to come on TV that they will agree to take whatever line you want. Pro, anti, moderate bas panel pe baitha do,” is how one guest desk explains the sameness of panels.

Barkha Dutt says her approach is different for her two shows “A daily show and weekly show are very different. On We The People, there is more of a chance to try new and creative options. The rigour of daily news deadlines leaves you with no time to choose and plan so there isn’t a creative choice of guests. Which is why I’ve started doing a lot more interviews on my 9 to 10 slot. It breaks from the trap of sameness. When you have a weekly, you can discover new commentators and panelists. My team is not allowed to use Google to find guests for We The People. I’m accused of being too demanding but I think it’s important. My producers for We The People have to meet people physically. Meet a Colin Gonsalves and he will get five more names. But for a daily, I admit it’s a problem to have that kind of scrutiny or involvement in selecting guests.”

Then there’s the problem of Delhi being dominated by the set of opinions that get disproportionate airtime, most news outlets being headquartered in Delhi. Barkha says she tries to get past that by hosting shows from elsewhere, “I do try and take my show into the field as often as possible and that enables not just ground reports but also under exposed faces. For instance, I just did a series of shows from Jammu and Kashmir during the assembly elections. Moving far from Delhi is one sure way of finding new fresh voices and faces.” While that may offer more variety on The Buck Stops Here, it’s unlikely to statistically dent the Delhi dominance on news panels across channels.

Area expertise or gift of the gab?
Ever wondered why Shobha De is waxing eloquent about the Board of Control for Cricket in India, International Cricket Council and spot fixing or Suhel Seth is giving gyan on a discussion on reservation or Right to Information?  Me too.

Apparently it is because you need an entertainer on a panel that would otherwise get too heavy. There did appear some sort of divide between anchors and guest coordinators over the approach to gift-of-the-gab guests. Some anchors agreed that perennial panelists like Suhel Seth are no area experts but they are smart, have opinions and can articulate them well, a few disagreed. The guest coordinator corner was pretty much on the same page, one referring to this lot as “entertainment value” and one putting it candidly, “bakchodi karne ke liye bhi koi chahiye na”.

“I wouldn’t say glibness trumps content, but you do look for effective articulation while selecting a panel,” says Barkha Dutt. She adds “it’s a very competitive news space out there and anyone who understands television will know that you can’t have a person, no matter how knowledgeable, take too long in getting to the point. The medium too matters, we have limited time. I try to put a reasonable mix. Panelists who don’t hedge their positions are important to make a TV discussion watchable.”

One news professional who has worked in TV news in several capacities before moving to digital tells me, “There was a time several years ago where the first preference was subject matter experts. There was a sincere honest attempt to make sure the panelist we put on TV had serious value, but it was not a long persevering attempt, it was impatient.  Our job was to provide balance. If you have an extreme right voice, a left voice must provide balance. But I left TV and I’m talking about my time. Today it’s not like that.”

Clearly competition doesn’t leave much scope for patience.

Most anchors across channels agree that being TV friendly does have an edge over being an area expert. One anchor who’s been in the game for a long time said – “You don’t want some academic who knows his subject really well but is droning on and on, putting the audience to sleep. While that may appear shallow and superficial, the people getting outraged at that proposition will be the first to flip channels when subjected to one such panelist, but a ____, he’s comic relief. He’s ridiculous. Sometimes he says things people are thinking but will never say, even though often he’s there to market someone’s point of view. But I never have him on my panel.”

The idea across channels is to get more people to watch news, specifically the young adult audience who are not the committed news watchers. These are very sought-after viewers. It’s to attract this audience that when in doubt, many guest coordinators go to the “lively and interesting Suhel who is articulate” and will sort of ensure that people flipping channels will stay on.

Do people get on panels as part of an organised PR exercise?
I have heard this for the longest time that PR agencies and corporate houses have people on their payrolls who appear on panels pushing a corporate agenda.  Honestly, there is no way to conclusively prove this or even confirm if it happens. It could be one of those rumours that has been around long enough so people think it’s a fact. Even if true, no one is going to admit to it and I have asked around.

While many TV professionals acknowledge that some panelists appear to be “pushing someone else’s agenda”, they also add that there is no way a call from or “setting” with a PR company can get any random person on a panel. There have been attempts though.

So how do many people land up on panels with no area expertise or new or smart perspectives? Some are sifarish cases I was told by more than one guest desk. “Sometimes your boss (editor or channel owner) meets someone socially and then you get a mail saying try him out for a panel.” Now that may have been a carefully orchestrated social-climbing maneuver by the invitee to build a profile to monetise later but from the editor or anchor’s point of view it may have been a casual suggestion. There is no way to say for sure.

Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations, a regular on news panels, says, “Being on a panel is not something you can fix. Even if you do appear a few times toeing someone’s line or agenda, you come across as a gun for hire. It’s not sustainable.” He says he only accepts invitations on panels to talk about brand building/marketing, politics or governance, although he gets called for all sorts of discussions.

Is there life beyond panels?
This is a true story from several years ago. It was March, one of the busiest TV news days of the year. The Union Budget was being announced by the Finance Minister and panels had been lined up to discuss the FM’s speech in studios with swanky sets. A multi-camera set-up and large crew were ready to roll. On one particular channel, the five or six panelists lined up were all “industry captains” save one – a prominent social activist working in areas of labour, worker and peasant rights, to provide the non-industry point of view. After all, it’s always nice to have at least 15 per cent representation from a voice that would approach the Budget from the rural worker point of view.

A short while before cameras were to roll another “industry captain” decided he too wanted to be on TV commenting on the Budget because five other people saying the same thing would not be repetitive enough. He called the anchor and the anchor decided to drop the labour-peasant representative and replace him with this industrialist at the last minute. Moral of the story - social access trumps PR agencies, area expertise, diverse opinions and pretty much any other consideration. That’s been my experience in the news space over many years – social access and affinity beats anything else.

But then, is there a demand for other points of view? For diversity on panels there must be diversity in viewership.

Barkha Dutt is of the opinion that “in our country the TV news culture is not fully formed”. She adds, “We need a much larger TV-savvy pool like they have in the Western countries. We’re still paying catch up. Media culture is lagging behind. We work very hard to get a new face and when we find a fresh new interesting perspective, that very quickly becomes an old face as soon as we put her or him on air. Other channels monitoring guests will take that person for their discussions.”

With TV news becoming more accessible and Arnab making it a popcorn experience, we can hope more audience means more variety on panels in terms of perspective too.  Also, it is kind of lame to have the same person across three panels in one night.

The entire concept of private treatise and buying editorial space in newspapers was stumbled upon by a visionary news group owner who realised that reporters were benefitting from coverage of brand/people/stars. Instead of the reporter being rewarded with booze, holidays, party invites or other favours in exchange of Page 3 or other page coverage, why not let the news corporation institutionalise and sell its editorial space? That move changed journalism forever. Maybe it is time for TV to do that. With the desire to be on TV news up there in the aspirational space with Jaguars, TAG Heuer watches and destination weddings, one can have a price tag for a couple of the windows that form the grid of nightly news.

While you can pay experts and entertainers for their appearance you can earn from selling at least 25 per cent of the real estate on our 32-inch, flat-screen TVs. The one with the most windows will have the fattest revenue pipeline, which is only fair since they are credited with changing news as we know it in the first place. And if you want to learn some tricks that will serve you well if you get on a panel, read this.

(Source: News Laundry)

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