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Let's talk about talk shows
Publication Date : 17-10-2012
There used to be a time, in Bangladesh, when we could not imagine having to buy water to drink. And yet we pay for water today. There was a time when we didn't have any idea that something called the mobile phone would be there. You must thank those in the mobile phone business, for they had the foresight to know that a day would soon arrive when the traditionally talkative Bengalis would talk even more through those futuristic mobile phones. Look around you today, observe the water and the mobile phone. And you will know.
If you have noticed, a fairly good number of people have lately been talking about talk shows. They wouldn't have if the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, had not first talked about it. Whether Hasina was right or wrong in her assessment of talk shows on the many television channels is a question we choose not to answer, for the good reason that it could throw up a whole new crowd of responses. But what is certainly important is that the head of government appears to be among those people who watch talk shows with a fair degree of regularity. If she didn't, she wouldn't be pronouncing judgment on them.
Seriously speaking, though, it is time for us to reflect on the nature and quality of all the talk shows we are treated to every evening by all this ubiquity of television channels in the country. We will begin with an assertion of a basic principle here, which is that in a land where parliament does not function because of the opposition boycott of it and because of which boycott citizens are never privy to the stimulating debate that energises life in a democracy, television talk shows fulfill, or should fulfill, a certain public need. To suggest that talk shows be done away with would be naive, a sign of the very intolerance democracy eschews all the time.
That said, there are all the huge holes in talk shows that need plugging before we are persuaded into believing that such discussions on the electronic media can serve a serious purpose. Among those holes is the propensity on the part of the television people to rope in, day in and day out, the same faces we have seen and heard on innumerable talk shows and on public occasions for years on end. You might suggest that there is hardly anything wrong in bringing in these eminent people to your living room every night, seeing that a small country like Bangladesh always suffers from a paucity of intellectual or fairly knowledgeable men ready to throw wisdom our way. We understand your argument, up to a point. Beyond that comes the question: haven't these people we see on television all the time become rather predictable in their expression of opinions? Once the camera focuses on them, you know what they are likely to say on the issue under discussion. And that is when talk shows lose their glitter.
There are other difficulties you encounter on the talk shows, at least in a large number of them. And they relate to the fact that every talk show participant seems to be an expert on nearly every subject under the sun. You will spot these venerable men discussing an entire gamut of issues from hartals to the caretaker government to crime to corruption. Men who have retired from the bureaucracy are ready and willing to proffer advice on how politics ought to be conducted. Superannuated military officers, having served martial law regimes, speak up vociferously for democracy. Academics, having tried distorting history at the behest of certain political parties, find nothing wrong in defending moral politics. Journalists who commit historical wrong by refusing to address Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (who led Bangladesh during it's 1971 war of independence) as Bangabandhu wax eloquent on the path the nation must take to the future. Former caretaker advisers who might have ignored their responsibilities during their stint in office are forever ready to let you in on where the politicians are going wrong. Of course the politicians are going wrong all the time, but should the compere at the talk show not do his or her homework and ask such advisers why they could not oversee a proper production of school textbooks on their watch or why they linked up with a caretaker chief who had manifestly violated the constitution in taking up his job?
Which brings you up against the role of the comperes or presenters you see every evening and every night on television. Quite a few of them, once a talk show gets under way, quickly lose the initiative to their guests. Impoliteness takes over and the one whose fair turn it is to speak finds himself rudely interrupted by another. That is not civilised behaviour. And when the compere is unable to restore order or inform his or her guests of the rules of the game before the show begins, it is only natural that a talk show will descend into chaos, that the country will learn nothing from it. There are talk shows where the compere grins and watches helplessly as his guests slug it out, each one accusing the other of every kind of perfidy in the world. When that happens, your children and mine, watching with us at home, are quite at sea about the state of our politics. This is not adult behaviour, they seem to say.
Speaking of comperes again, there are some who have developed the outrageous habit of interrupting the individual who is trying to answer their questions. The result is an asinine affair: the original question has remained unanswered and the television audience has only had the experience of seeing the compere hear his or her voice on screen. The moment a compere decides to be the centre of the show, much of the enthusiasm associated with watching a talk show goes out the window. It is for the management of the television channels to ensure that their comperes do their homework, go through a fact check on their guests, ask questions in brevity and then wait for the guests to respond. Don't let television talk show hosts make statements of their own.
Finally, talk shows get to be spoilt when in an hour-long programme you have a compere hosting three guests as well as taking calls from outside. And within it all there are the "short breaks" for commercials. By the end of the hour, the audience is not quite sure what it has learnt from the show. It is as confused as the three guests who suddenly realise that they had a lot more to say to their audience than the programme gave them scope for.
Ah, but we have talked enough already. Give the reader some space, now.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.