Monday, October 12, 2009

Why Do Most of Our Television Commentators Look and Sound Simply Silly?

MY FRIEND Damodar Prasad is a highly intelligent and well-read person. He is a no nonsense person and his comments are always sharp and incisive. Recently, he made some comments in a discussion group on our commentators on television news programmes, and as usual he was quite forthright and aggressive. Here is an example:

Why can't these commentator chaps take some sabbatical leave or even think of applying for VRS. I think the journalist association should keep some funds reserved for these commentators to offer them a VRS golden hand-shake.

And on the political commentators on CPM affairs, he has some more:

In heights of CPM factionalism, let the evening come, all these guys wait outside our TV studios like the contract labourers waiting for the contractor to pick them up. Do these chaps have any refreshing views to share? I really doubt.

Unfortunately, I happen to be one of the people who have been commenting on left politics, especially CPM affairs, in Malayalam television channels in the past few years. In fact, during the height of factionalism in the party, I had to visit two or three channel studios on many evenings, and when the Kairali TV interview with Fariz Aboobacker became a major issue of controversy in the party, I had to visit news studios every evening for over a week continuously, speaking to various channels and radio stations on the topic, may be because I was one of the pioneers there when Kairali TV was launched in August 2000.

Still, I do not have any wish to defend the tribe of people called commentators, because I also share some of the criticisms expressed by Damodar about the quality of television debates. But I do feel we need to take a look at the issue from the commentators’ point also, as what Damodar gave was, essentially, a viewer’s point.

My points are as follows:

First, the commentator has no choice on his/her being a commentator. As far as I know no self-respecting commentator has ever made a request to the channel authorities seeking a place as commentator. They are invited by the channels to give comments. If poor quality people are invited, quality of comment also suffers. (I recently heard of a Malayalam professor who did actually seek such a thing and his intention was to debunk a close friend who was likely to get a Parliament seat nomination .But this is an exception that proves my argument.)

Secondly, if the commentators are poor in quality or ill-equipped to argue the case, I feel the people who invite them are equally culpable. Either they should know the quality and capability of the person invited or they should stop such programmes that need a supply of commentators in plenty.

Thirdly, it is also a fact that if one look for good people who can speak intelligently and cogently in Malayalam on serious issues, there is a real shortage among us. That makes the commentators’ position rather difficult because often he/she has to address the same issue in two or three channels. This is one reason why we see the same crop of commentators appearing again and again in various channels on the same issues, repeating the same points ad nauseam. It is really sad that most of our Malayalam channels do have a fetish for CPM stories and if one takes a survey, one can see a large number of debates take place on left or CPM politics. I do remember having to talk about the same topic on as many as four channels only recently. Repetition makes one really boring.

Fourthly, there is also a technical aspect that is part of the inherent shortcomings of television communication. The commentator has to answer to specific questions and he has maximum one minute or so (if he is lucky and the anchor patient enough) to make a coherent reply and in two or three sentences, it is next to impossible to develop any real argument even if you are adept at this game. The fact is, you can reply to a question and if the question itself is rubbish or biased (which they often are), then the reply can't be any better. I have encountered this problem often and it is highly irritating to the commentator himself, though he only would face the criticism.

Finally, our comments on TV are amateur and needs to be professionalised. Check CNN or BBC or any other major international channels, they do have their own in-house experts on topics from politics to international affairs to environment. (Even our own national channel, NDTV, has a crop of in-house experts.) They are paid for their services and are committed professionals with a stake in the professional standards. Here, as far as I know, no expert gets any payment for his services and the comment can only be off the cuff. In journalism there is an adage that facts are sacred, comments free. I think the channels have misunderstood its meaning and feel one need not pay anything for comments. But even small newspapers do pay as much as Rs. 500 to 1000 for a 500-word comment piece these days. If you can't spend money on quality, how do you expect quality stuff, whether it is report or comment?

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