Indian television

Channel surfing: Why ‘HARDTalk’ cannot exist on any Indian news channel

If TV chat shows are all about ‘knowing your audience’, then we certainly have a clear idea of what our viewers want.

BBC HARDTalk can come as a nice dose of culture shock if your staple diet has been news television in India. Apparently it is still fully possible to have a rigorous interview without raising your decibel level – all this, while even letting your guest speak even if you disagree with them.

It’s quite a revolutionary concept. I’m not sure it’ll catch on!

Of course, this isn’t a breaking news type of scenario and it is a controlled environment, so it’s almost a different genre of news TV. There’s something wonderful about that clean, sleek look – not for them the multiple boxes and frenetic pulses of text.

In a recent HARDTalk interview with musician and visual artist Brian Eno, who has worked with major talent such as David Bowie and U2, the anchor Stephen Sackur brings up the topic of sound landscaping, which is apparently one of the many things that Eno does. I have no idea what it entails.

Talk about knowing your audience.

“Sound landscaping – it sounds very pretentious,” Sackur says, not unkindly. To which Eno just laughs and retorts, “All good things do sound pretentious”.

This turns out to be quite interesting, without any dramatic ado. It’s all very amiable, even when Sackur is probing further about talent and genius – making music with a legend like Bowie versus doing work with U2 and Coldplay where presumably the motivation is just to sell millions of records. (To his credit, Eno isn’t snobby about this. He says all artists “want to go somewhere else” after a point.)

They discuss Eno’s work, as a visual artist, lighting up the Sydney Opera House for a few weeks during a festival, and conclude with Eno’s sense of where the most transformative and innovative art is happening. (Eno says that it’s the world of gaming.)

The show provides a fascinating peek into another world, and is an example of a really great interview. There are no frills and gimmicks, just questions, answers, a robust conversation.

Unfortunately, on domestic news television, it’s rare to see these calm, thorough and thought-provoking interviews, not even in the so-called culture space, of which the less said the better. This seems to be an increasingly shrinking space, with most stories devoted to Bollywood.

What we all seem to crave in India is some masala in our news. Friday night, I tune in after seeing a couple of fairly angry tweets from India Today’s Managing Editor Rahul Kanwal.

That’s enough to whet the appetite, wouldn’t you say? Off I go to check out what’s going on, but find that Times Now has moved on to another story (hashtag #NoProofAgainstPragya).

I’m actually rivetted for about 20 minutes by the raucous debate, with the anchor Arnab Goswami very much in the fray. While trying to counter one of his panelists, who refuses to pipe down despite several entreaties, Goswami slays with the rhetorical, “Are you going to censor me on my own programme?”

There’s a lot of yelling by everyone and the nation refuses to take this lying down. Before moving to the next guest, Goswami calls out said panelist as “a very aggressive person on our panel tonight… If you can match your aggression to him, you are free to come in.”

Later on the same show, he says, “I enjoy a good debate, as do all of you.” But then quite quickly there’s another conversation that devolves into a shouting match and then two more panelists argue and yell at each other and all of a sudden I’m getting an inkling of why gladiator matches had such huge crowds.

Goswami yells, cajoles, and criticises his guests for their use of language, for “inconsistency”, and for being “reticent” in their use of language, scoring immediate brownie points on patriotism, at one point.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to make head or tail of the actual arguments. The for and against arguments do get summed up by the nation’s voice, but the debate seems to be re-framed constantly. All the yelling gets to you after a point, and I find my attention moving to the floating text, including the tweet-o-meter on the top of the screen, which is constantly being refreshed. They track almost 200 new tweets in the space of 20 minutes.

Not for once while you’re watching will you forget that this show is a production, an orchestra. And you’re in the hands of a master-conductor, who’s clearly capable of winding people up to a fever pitch – panelists and viewers, both.

Amrita Tripathi is a recovering news junkie. She has previously worked for CNN-IBN and The Indian Express. At times, she may have a glancing familiarity or more with the news players mentioned.

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