Neelam Sharma and the art of TV anchoring

Vanita Kohli-KhandekarNeelam Sharma is a revelation. This sharp-talking, quick-witted Hindi anchor hosts a show called Charcha Mein on DD News. On two occasions, I was invited to be a part of the show. The first time was a panel discussion on changes in the Copyright Act and the second one, more recently, on the TV ratings controversy following NDTV’s lawsuit against TAM, the rating agency in India.

Both these subjects are tough even for seasoned media journalists. And honestly I was dreading the copyright discussion. There were five panelists in the studio and two on an outstation link. And there was Neelam looking gorgeous and spouting some aggressive language, the way Hindi news anchors do. But the moment the camera rolled Neelam did an incredibly good job.

 DD News anchor, Neelam Sharma
One of a kind: This DD News anchor, Neelam Sharma, is a breath of fresh air in a news television market full of shrill stars

The television studio discussion, a difficult format to discuss either copyright law or ratings methodology, moved smoothly. There were no repetitions, no shouting, and no screaming. Almost every viewpoint came in, the discussion moved forward. By the end of the show people who knew nothing about ratings or copyright, would have had a basic knowledge of the subject, the issues and the solutions. The show had done its job of informing, analysing and presenting a varied viewpoint on a topic. At no point did Neelam impose a viewpoint, harangue a panelist or shout them down. She knew little about the topic but knew what questions to ask and to whom.

Neelam, however, is an exception. It is impossible to get a mind-tickling, satisfying discussion on any subject a la a magazine, on most news channels. This is not about DD News versus private news channels. Both have their strengths. This is about anchors of feature shows on TV and why they can’t seem to get a good discussion going. My guesses for whatever they are worth — One, Charcha Mein works because Neelam, probably, has a decent production team behind her. They do their research well, know whom to call and what to ask them. On the copyright discussion especially the choice of guests was flawless. On most news channels, irrespective of the subject, the list of panelists is something you and I can guess with our eyes shut. It is so predictable.

Two, most anchors of weekend or day end feature shows are big stars in their own right. Like most stars they need to keep hearing the sound of their own voice. The panelists’ opinion then seems to be an interruption to what the anchors want to tell viewers. They don’t steer the discussion as much as dominate it. Also most time-stressed star-anchors are loathe to admit that do not know enough.

Three, most anchors and TV journalists in India have a news background. There is something to be said for working on feature writing and more so in print. It teaches you research, rigour and analysis. It forces you to sieve the material you get and only present the best. You learn that you must not write or analyse at the speed at which you are gathering data. Gather all your material, sit back, go through it and reflect. If you have done this thousands of times, you can anchor or analyse any subject quickly on the run because you know what you need to keep and what should be thrown away.

To quote one of my former editors: “You cannot be in love with your research. Be ruthless about cutting out anything that doesn’t support the story.” For a two-page magazine story it was normal to do loads of reading and ten to fifteen interviews before the analysis fell in place.
TV with its audio-visual quality is a difficult medium to analyse anything on. To this add starry anchors and ill trained reporters and researchers. The result is what you see in the name of analysis on TV today.

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at 

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