Anchor rancour

Read more below

By Why are talk show hosts on Indian TV channels often loud and brash, and occasionally, downright rude? Rahul Jayaram looks for answers
  • Published 7.09.08
  •  

There is a war raging out there. Not in Iraq, but closer home. The battlefield is the television studio.

In what is widely seen as an effort aimed at pulling eyeballs, TV channels are fast turning into a platform for frayed tempers and shattered eardrums. And news anchors — many of them venerable journalists — are in battle gear.

As issues heat up — from Singur to Amarnath to alleged vote buying in Parliament — debates end up with harsh words and rising decibel levels. Most viewers — and participants —complain that anchors interrupt a speaker, move to another guest with a new question while the first participant is still voicing an opinion, or call for a commercial break in the midst of an answer. They are often loud and brash, and occasionally downright rude.

Last week, a discussion on the Amarnath yatra on news channel CNN-IBN moderated by journalist Rajdeep Sardesai ended with one of the speakers, senior scribe and Kashmir affairs expert Prem Shankar Jha, hitting back at the anchor after being repeatedly interrupted. “Rajdeep, you keep cutting into my sentences … and I forget what I have to say,” he barked. The show continued unabated.

If that wasn’t enough, again last week, CNN-IBN ran a debate on the floods in Bihar, this time refereed by Sagarika Ghose. A senior journalist was interrupted so often that at one point he paused and frowned after being harangued by the compere, his eyes seething with irritation.

A senior Hindi news channel journalist faced a bit of a backlash first hand. He recalls interviewing cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu on the charges of culpable homicide that had been levelled at him. Sidhu got so cheesed off with the volley of questions that he walked off the set when the host called for a break.

Clearly, Indian anchors like to bare their teeth — and infuriate speakers so that they bare theirs as well. “Anchors want to make you say what they want, and if you don’t, they end up saying that themselves,” laughs Sanal Edamaruku, president, Indian Rationalist Association —who has been on some 200 TV shows over the years.

Bahujan Samajwadi Party member Shahid Siddiqui can’t count the number of instances when he and fellow participants in political debates on TV have been broken off by the anchor. Famously, once he was invited to a show and couldn’t get a word in edgeways as the anchor hammered on. “Most anchors think participants —especially politicians — are fools and only try bringing us down. When you are ignorant you become aggressive.”

Prem Shankar Jha emphasises there was nothing personal about his retort (“and no mala fide intent on Rajdeep’s part either”). But he raises a larger question about prime time TV programming. TV anchors yelling down participants in debates and news shows comes within a wider media context, he explains.

Jha enlists reasons why this is happening more and more. “TV programmers have immense belief in the idea that their viewers have a short attention span, which isn’t true. There’s also this deep urge to turn every issue into a battle — catering to a bored middle class,” he says. “For contentious issues — such as Kashmir — there’s always a crowd on the debating table. And the moment a politician starts making noises, the situation erupts. The show goes for a toss and the anchor starts roaring.”

While echoing Jha’s views, media critic and columnist Sevanti Ninan feels the tendency of TV anchors becoming restive on overcrowded shows links to the question of TV time. “Most prime time debates are not even 30 minutes long. They run for 25 minutes or less and have three ad breaks. The format of the programme is such that it starts off on the wrong footing.”

But anchors differ. Sagarika Ghose, senior editor, CNN-IBN, comes down on the demeanour of pundits and intellectuals on TV. “We have very fine writers and print journalists. But most of them cannot speak well on TV,” she says.

An anchor’s job, she argues, is to help refocus attention on the specifics. “TV anchoring is a tightrope walk. If you don’t snap, most speakers don’t stop,” she says.

Anchor Barkha Dutt, however, notes that India is yet to have an “evolved television culture.” The format of TV shows may be a problem, but exceptions abound. “On a recent show of We The People NDTV dropped ad breaks as the debate was extremely intense and gripping. The anchor became a marginal presence,” says the group editor, English News, NDTV. The performance of an anchor also depends on the quality of people she’s contending with, Dutt explains. It’s never entirely the anchor’s fault if things get out of hand, she adds.

Ayesha Faridi, who has anchored programmes such as Power Breakfast for CNBC TV-18, brings a different perspective. “On the business side of things, debates can get heated, but largely we’re dealing with analysts and corporate heads (MBAs or CEOs) who’re a lot savvier than participants on mainstream news channels. They understand how TV works,” she says. Howling anchors on business channels are rare, though the “decibel levels rise” when dealing with politico-economic issues such as Singur and Nandigram, Faridi says.

And to add to all these factors is the all-important question of viewer ratings. Most channels vie for the same slice of viewers — and competition is intense. A senior politician says he has often been asked to “heat up” a show by members of a TV team. He had appeared previously on a news show where the mercury in the newsroom soared — courtesy the anchor — and some of the participants responded in kind. The channel’s TRP ratings shot up for that period, and a rival channel called him for a similar debate, suggesting to him to “do the same.”

Media critic and The Indian Express columnist Shailaja Bajpai contends that with most mainstream TV channels, “They will do what works. The anchor is the star of the show. And if pyrotechnics is the only criterion to increase viewership, so be it!” For the moment, it is anchor, uninterrupted.