Squealers and yellers

February 6, 2022

Talk show hosts need professional training and a code of conduct

Squealers and yellers

If you watch a current affairs talk show with sound turned off, you will observe several irksome things. You will notice a lack of symmetry in the posture and presentation of the guests and the host. A guest sitting on the left may be dwarfed by the one sitting on the right. And the one included in the programme from home on Skype is hardly looking into the camera.

If there are two hosts, often there is no coordination. Many talk shows play short clips pertinent to the events being discussed. If it is footage of snowfall in Murree, you will see the same car 40 times in the snow. These clips are usually a minute long, while the show tends to be around 40 minutes.

Nadeem Raza, chief of news and current affairs at PTV, tells The News on Sunday, “The presentation on-screen influences the viewers’ decision to engage with a TV show.” “If you lose your screen, you lose it all,” he says.

You notice more nonsense once the volume is turned on. It is not advisable for a host to consume more than 20-25 percent of the allotted time asking questions. The first rule of journalism taught in the classrooms is that a journalist must be a good listener. Journalists observe, listen to all possible voices and connect the dots. Any media student knows that he or she is not supposed to interrupt a respondent even if they have evidence to prove them wrong. They are supposed to sit patiently and hear the respondent out before telling their stories to the masses.

In a recent talk show, Shahbaz Gill, advisor to the prime minister, embarrassed the host who questioned the credentials of the university where Gill had studied for his PhD. The personal attack was pointless. Earlier, the same host had traded allegations of a very personal nature with the housing and works minister.

A few days ago, a female host told a guest that Chief Minister Usman Buzdar had been an average ‘lowly’ person before he became chief executive of the Punjab. The guest replied rationally that it was normal for people to move up in life. Before starting her TV career, the host herself might have been relatively unknown. This clip made rounds on social media and a lot of comments followed on Twitter.

These two are no match however for another host who once declared that talking of should be shot dead and the cost of the bullet recovered from their families. Some senior journalists refer to him as ‘yeller’.

The ‘yeller’ and some others are seen unabashedly ranting against female panelists and guests.

TV hosts are no longer the gatekeepers of analysis and information they once were. You will find pertinent information online; what you will not find is prominent persons taking low blows at one another or being provoked to make threats

The question many media students ask is why do TV managers provide a platform for such unprofessionalism. The answer is simple: these characters are very popular amongst the masses. The TV managers are in the business of ratings. They cannot afford to lose crowd pullers. If a talk show is going smoothly, featuring quality discussion, its viewership remains stable. But if the host succeeds in pitting two guests against each other in an explosive manner, the viewership takes a leap. The clips are then distributed on WhatsApp groups and uploaded on social media. Memes are then made and lead more people to the show.

Such shows become popular and make for higher returns on a potentially risky investment. Popular TV is not a positive term as some people might perceive it to be. Populism is in fact a threat to democracy and leads to chaos and decay. Desperate to appear as jacks of all trades, many TV anchors expose themselves as masters of none.

In 2002 when independent electronic media started, an army of unprofessional but well-connected newspaper journalists dominated the screens through private TV channels. Many non-governmental bodies tried to pass off this tide of ineptitude as ‘presentations’ to international donors and won funding to train them. The volume of such funding for the organisations and the level of populism on our TV screens has only gone up. Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has tried in some ways to control the talk shows, but to no avail. While PEMRA makes some rather questionable decisions at times, regulating the professional conduct on talk shows is not one of them. While it has the power to put the house in order, it chooses to go about it the wrong way by imposing outright bans.

The politicisation of professional issues is augmented by a rhetoric that is a product of populism. Media teachers and researchers who are responsible for training students find it hard to justify the increase in populism. It becomes harder for them to explain that there is a world of difference between a postman and a messenger, freedom of speech and rumor-mongering, propaganda and people’s right to know.

Media departments of national universities turn out about 10,000 graduates every year. But media bosses do not need them because these graduates lack what the bosses wish for. The students often complain that they have not been taught the art of making useful connections, which they soon discover is the key to success. In many cases, they learn that media jobs are more about who one knows, rather than one’s suitability for the role.

“Unqualified and inexperienced, the media kings and queens are willing to indulge in all kinds of acts that may net them higher ratings,” says Nadeem Abbas, a Lahore-based lawyer and media critic.

We live in an age of digital media where information is all but impossible to withhold. TV hosts are no longer the gatekeepers of analysis and information they once were. One will find all the pertinent information online. What one will not find is prominent persons taking low blows at one another or being provoked to make indecent threats. The electronic media’s reliance on controversy, sensationalism and cheap thrill has been further exacerbated by the internet.

The writer teaches development support communication at International Islamic University Islamabad.     Twitter: @HassanShehzadZ     Email: Hassan.shehzad@iiui.edu.pk

Squealers and yellers