Behind the news debates
With election season reaching fever pitch and results less than a week away, Saurabh Datar peeks into newsrooms and talks to the architects of every day’s prime time panel discussions – the guest coordinators
Every night, you see an array of faces on every news channel – talking, arguing, shouting, screeching. Somewhere, there’s a point to be made, an issue to be discussed, a stand to be taken. The entire world’s eyes are on India’s ongoing elections – the world’s largest such exercise – and all our eyes are on news channels. It’s been more than six months since parties kicked off their campaigns. Party representatives and journalists dissect speeches, take apart rhetoric and analyse implications of statements 9 pm onwards on every news show. While tensions run high on camera, behind it, Aakash Kumar smiles away to himself. It means he has done his job well.
Kumar is a guest coordinator at CNN-IBN – he works on Rajdeep Sardesai’s show ‘India @ 9’, and arranges for guests to appear on the discussion panel. “I head the guest desk – I have a team of people who call politicians, newsmakers, analysts, experts to appear on panel discussions on our channel every day,” he explains.
Guest coordinators maintain a huge data bank of potential guests – each one would have more than 2,000 phone numbers. The day begins with a conference call in the morning with the editorial heads, another guest coordinator who has worked with channels like Times Now, NDTV told me. A topic for debate is decided and the countdown begins – coordinators begin calling up relevant guests who could appear on the prime time show at 9. “Each person makes at least 12-13 calls a day and briefs guests on the day’s topic. It’s a scramble to get the best people on air. Once the guest confirms, we add him/her to the final list,” she says. The job is not over yet; logistics are to be taken care of. “We send them cars to come to our studio, make sure they have what they need, so that they keep coming back,” she continues. Politicians are tricky creatures, and one has to tread lightly.
Guest coordinators have always been around in the industry. Qamar Waheed Naqvi, who has been the editorial director for Aaj Tak (also credited with naming the channel) and India TV, recalls, “Even 20 years ago, there was one person in every channel to receive and escort guests, take care of hospitality etc. Since we didn’t need so many guests back then, one dedicated person was enough. Many a time, a reporter’s contacts were enough to get guests on air.”
Guest coordinators suddenly came into the limelight when multiple 24-hour news channels were launched in the early 2000s. “Channels like CNN-IBN and Times Now changed the format of the game. From reporting, the focus shifted to panel discussions. That’s when we started getting more importance,” says another experienced guest coordinator who has been with Aaj Tak and NDTV.
She remembers that coordinators were looked down upon. “Now we are treated with a lot of respect.” Many started out with reporting or production; some did a bit of everything. Kumar was a one-man army in DD News – he used to coordinate with guests, produce the show, get it edited and aired. When the editor eventually offered to let him choose one profile, Kumar happily chose coordination.
The head of the guest desk participates in editorial meetings, offers suggestions and virtually controls who gets airtime on the most watched show of the channel (the 9 o’clock slot). “There was a time when the editor-in-chief had the final say in everything. Increasingly, he/she is being matched by the senior guest coordinator. If the latter says something can be done, it can be done. Otherwise, it can’t,” Bhupendra Chaubey, national affairs editor for CNN-IBN, told me.
The very nature of their job entails that guest coordinators maintain personal relationships with politicians. Courtesy calls, luncheons, tea sessions establish a rapport. A senior coordinator can ensure that a high-profile guest will appear on his channel, and not on others. “I love socialising with people and talking to them. That is what I enjoy about the job the most,” adds Kumar, who has about 14 years of experience – he has been with CNN-IBN since its inception in 2005. Kumar counts some of the politicians among his friends. “If I tell them to come on CNN-IBN, they will come here and not go anywhere else. It’s because of our relationship,” he adds.
Yet, it’s not easy handling the fragile egos of politicians – cancelling an appearance being a tricky problem. “It’s very embarrassing when we have to cancel a guest. We tell blatant lies that there is a technical problem or the topic was changed, but no guest is a fool,” says the former Times Now coordinator. Kumar remembers a senior politician throwing a glass of water on a coordinator because it wasn’t “lukewarm enough.” A very senior BJP leader never comes to the studio, but only does appearances from his house. “He won’t even move from the spot. I’ve been seeing the same bookshelf in the background for so many years; we all even know the order and the names of the books now,” the former Aaj Tak coordinator chuckles. Another Congress politician, who is now a Union minister, would only come if the good-looking female anchor made a phone call personally.
However, politicians understand that TV appearances build a perception and brand value for them. That’s why every major political party has created a media cell, which provides to channels a list of authorised spokespersons on various topics. Depending on the issue to be discussed and the language required, guests are invited. Parties constantly review the performance of their representatives on air. The bad eggs are discarded and new faces introduced. Coordinators give fresh faces a chance to speak for their organisation.
“When we call a new young spokesperson on our channel, everyone else also notices. If he/she does well, the person will start appearing on other channels. I think I was one of the first people to introduce Manish Tewari (Union IB Minister) on air. My senior editors asked me why I had done so. Look where he is now,” Kumar says. The likes of Smriti Irani, Meenakshi Lekhi started appearing on news channels as spokespersons some 5-7 years ago. Both contested the Lok Sabha elections this time (Lekhi from New Delhi and Irani from Amethi).
In a way, guest coordinators influence careers of politicians invariably. It works for the channel as well; it gets a high-profile guest on subsequent programmes. Hence, beginners reach out to coordinators to arrange for appearances; sometimes offering to “return the favour”. Even mid-level politicians send a subtle message that “they are available if needed”. Others watch the debates and call up the next day, demanding to know why they weren’t on it.
Television, being a mass medium, is a huge tool of communication and parties understand that. “Today, communication and the way you explain your ideas is of prime importance. Based on the behaviour and the body language, people will form a perception of the spokesperson, and by extension, the party,” explains Naqvi, a veteran of 33 years in the industry.
Politicians are always looking for media coverage. But with round-the-clock election programming, TV appearances pronouncedly add to the political score.
“See, one cannot build a career only out of TV debates. One has to have that shrewd sense of politics and a way to connect with people. You can either connect with the public by working at the grassroots level or through TV. If you have a natural sense of politics and proper articulation of the party’s ideas, you will be noticed. In that way, TV can boost your political career,” he adds. Several politicians – especially the lawyers – used news channels smartly and are now sitting ministers and top leaders of opposition parties. Of course, they are excellent speakers and have clarity of thought. But, coverage does help.
The shift to the discussion-based format has seen the rise of guest coordinators, but reporting has taken a hit. Channels are increasingly investing in hiring good coordinators with access to the corridors of power, at high salaries – sometimes higher than mid-level editors. “It’s very difficult for channels to invest in hardcore reportage. I see this as the beginning of the end of reporting. It makes much better sense to invest in guest coordinators, so that you have better voices on air,” states Chaubey.
Naqvi has an interesting point of view on this. “Every time is prime time on news channels. There is always something going on 24x7. The era when people used to watch news only after returning from work is over. With Twitter, websites, people already know what developments have taken place. It doesn’t make sense to repeat the same news in the night.”
Debates, however, offer something new – at least in format, if not always in content. This has led to coordinators becoming one of the most powerful people in the industry.
Kumar and other coordinators are now busy preparing for May 16 – results will be announced and channels have lined up guests from 7 am in the morning till 12 in the night. A leading English news channel is said to have lined up 16 exclusive panellists for the whole day.
After that, the cycle starts again – with a (possibly) new government and new faces. There will be a new budget; perhaps a fresh controversy. There’s always something talked about in the news.