The era of political talk show hosts’ unquestionable popularity is over. But is it too soon to write their obituary? Maybe, just maybe, but not entirely. The phenomenon of talk show hosts, most commonly referred to as anchors here, has peaked and now they have hit a plateau and have hit it hard. As I had written once earlier, anchors have “degenerated into populist evangelists, sensationalistic and deluded, high on self-righteous pretense” (“Television’s real wrestling”, June 22, 2010 ).
No longer can political talk show hosts sit on their high vantage point, waving flags of moral and financial righteousness, as well as that of political correctness and clobber those who do not fit into their straitjackets and world view. The same audience that used to gleefully watch and enjoy the spectacle of feuding politicians on the television screen is getting rather tired of it all. The sudden popularity of dramas on entertainment channels is a testimony to the public’s boredom with the formula that has been repeated ad nauseam on political talk shows. The shouting matches, the verbal assaults, the below-the-belt attacks, the overdose of platitudes do not cut ice any more. The audience has seen through the charade. The talk show hosts have been stripped of their venerated cloaks. They played the game of being ‘holier than thou’ for too long and that too, with unrelenting viciousness.
As they went on a mad frenzy of exposing everyone else in society, they themselves lay exposed under the microscope of a disapproving public eye. Their political affiliations are apparent, no matter how hidden or slanted they may be. There is nothing wrong in having such affiliations but they won’t do if the insistence is on appearing non-partisan and above board. Tales of financial irregularities and extracting unethical benefits haunt them as much as they haunt those belonging to other professions. The shallowness and biases of many talk show hosts have surfaced from the depths of apparent profundity. For too long they flailed on television screens against anyone and everyone. Eventually, they drowned themselves in the blare of their own sermons.
But I don’t mean to castigate everyone. There are some who still try to do justice to their jobs. However, finding a balance is difficult and this perilous tightrope-walk cannot go on endlessly. There is exasperation with the old formula of forcing the guests into a cockfight. There is now a greater yearning for real, informed analysis and dispassionate debate. The theatrics have outlived their utility. The condescending, all omniscient attitude of such hosts is turning repulsive. Rather than acting as God’s gifts to the country, they should perhaps, act as vessels through which genuine questions flow towards their guests.
Of course, a fair share of the blame lies with the audience and the participants as well. The politicians willingly made sorry spectacles of themselves. They appeared on the shows with little preparation or research. Maintaining dignity and self-respect seemed too low on their priority lists. They readily and too easily clutched at the bait thrown at them.
However, just as the audience has balked, there has been a little push back by the politicians too, in recent times. The way information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira took on Kamran Khan made headlines and was widely discussed. Few days later, Kaira rolled the steamer over Talat Hussain. What surprised me was that several journalists actually seconded Kaira’s bare-knuckled response. The response reflects the public denunciation of these stereotypical programmes and nauseating moralising by most of the anchors. ‘Can anything constructive come out of these talk shows’ is a question often asked now. There is, of course, appetite for shows that have substantive debate and valuable participation. Such programmes will continue to be watched and appreciated. But will the ‘anchors’ take on that mantle and banish pandering to the demands of marketing executives, for whom ratings matter above everything sane and sensible. Hardly a chance.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2012.
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