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For a show to work on TV, conflict is often essential

I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Man Of The Year, staring Robin Williams, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum and Laura Linney. It came out at least a couple of years ago and was about a Jon Stewart-type talk show host who becomes President of the US thanks to a computer error.


   The film is fine in a time-pass sort of way but I was struck by a comment  made by one of the characters, a TV gag writer. He hated TV, he said, because it created a bogus equivalence.


   You’d have, on an average talk show, some demented joker who believed that the Holocaust did not happen. And then, you’d have next to him, some celebrated historian of the Second World War. Because both were treated equally by the show, you would get the impression that the conspiracy nutcase was on par with the distinguished historian. The nutcase would say increasingly outrageous things. And the professor would have to lower the tone of his remarks to be able to respond in kind to the nutcase’s arguments.


   As somebody who has spent over 15 years in television I have to say that I know exactly what the guy meant.


   I started out anchoring discussion programmes with live audiences and I realized very quickly that intelligent debate often did not come across well on TV. Partly this was because of a national failing: Indians are longwinded and largely incapable of making their points quickly.


   But  partly it was the fault of the medium. If you only want to hear a reasoned  argument then you can stick to radio. For a show to work on TV, conflict is often an essential ingredient. Angry confrontations can make for the best TV. Moreover, shows where everyone took moderate positions tended to fail. You needed sharply divergent position to get a debate going.


   Now, there are TV shows that work around these factors and I am unsparing in my admiration of them. But the vast majority of Indian discussion shows are entirely at the mercy of the limitations of the medium. Many have conflict built into their very titles (the Big Fight, War of Words etc.) and most depend on vastly divergent views being made to clash in the contrived conditions of a TV studio.


   Because the producers and the anchors want to create good, action-packed television rather than conduct a reasonable discussion, they like the conflict and some even revel in the name-calling that these shows often involve.


   Worse still, because many decent and reasonable people will not appear on these shows, they are forced to call non-entities and second-raters to the studios. And because the anchors like stirring things up, they frequently invite weirdoes and nutcases.


   Nowhere has this been most apparent than in recent shows on the decriminalisation of homosexuality.


   We all know that there are many bigots who have prejudices against homosexuals just as there are Hindu bigots  who have prejudices against Muslims or upper caste bigots who have prejudices against dalits.


"Perhaps it is just the nature of TV to reduce serious debates to slug-fests."

   But will you ever see a Hindu bigot invited to a studio to say Muslims are evil? Or a Brahmin given the space to say that dalits are dirty?


   Of course not. I am sure there are anchors who would love to conduct debates of this nature but debates on caste and  religion are frowned upon in India. Unfortunately homosexuals are entitled to none of the protections offered to other minorities.


   So, nearly every time there is a debate on homosexuality, the bigots will be allowed to say that all gays are paedophiles, that they suffer from mental sickness, that they are dirty etc. The more pronounced and outrageous the bigotry, the more welcome the guest.


   So most debates on homosexuality have now become caricatures where reasoned arguments in favour of scrapping Section 377 made by lawyers and scholars are treated on par with the nonsense spouted by bigots. The channels think it makes for great TV. And perhaps it does.


   But in the process, television does reasoned debate on a vital issue a great dis-service. Idiots are placed on par with scholars. The arguments are lost somewhere in the abuse and the prejudice.


   I don’t know what the solution is. Perhaps it is just the nature of TV to reduce serious debates to slug-fests.


   But I worry about young people who form their opinions based on these TV debates.



  • Rahul Bhuwal 19 Aug 2009

    Television industry has to take up a stand on getting their esteemed guests to be confronted with some logical and critical question. So that it doesn't waste time of people watching television for some healthy discussion. Also the industry has to remeber their penetration in the country and their moral responsbility of keeping audience fed with correct stuff.

  • Rahul (@elegantlywasted) 14 Jul 2009

    The point about "equivalence" is a valid one and it's often disguised as being "democratic". Democracy is not an excuse for stupidity. Another example being every time there's a terrorist attack, some moron gets the platform to justify the act on TV. The TV channel gets to claim they air "both" sides of the story when there is no such thing. Ditto with recent debates about homo-sexuality. Like every good media outlet needs a strong editorial control, such shows need to ensure they don't let morons take stage just to "appear" balanced. I am sure ratings play a part as well because it makes for some very provocative television.

Posted On: 14 Jul 2009 12:12 PM
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