For several months, I have been watching Pakistani talk shows, including Capital Talk, Kal Tak, Islamabad Tonight, and Tonight with Moeed Pirzada. These and other talk shows invite ministers, politicians, journalists, and sometimes experts to discuss national matters concerning foreign policy, domestic governance, terrorism, and prominent legal cases before the Supreme Court. These shows, though aired at different TV channels, follow a formulaic pattern in that each talk show has an anchor and each talk show, aired four or five times a week, invites three or four panelists to discuss a specific topic for nearly an hour. The talk shows provide irrefutable evidence that the Pakistani media is free, perhaps freer than the corporatist media in the United States. However, the Pakistani talk shows, though exuberant, are for the most part crude, unruly, and uneducated, potentially as detrimental to the dissemination of quality ideas as are the savvy but highly filtered talk shows in the U.S. corporatist media.
The Pakistani talk shows, conducted in Urdu with generous interspersion of English phrases, are seemingly framed for the educated classes of Pakistan, aimed particularly at Islamabad policymakers, with the hope that the government, the army, the parliament, and the judiciary would watch these shows to grasp problems and find solutions. The shows might also be seeking to educate the general public. Unfortunately, most talk shows fail in their reformist and educational mission because many panelists are poorly informed and many anchors are poorly prepared for the topic of the day to deliver a fruitful conversation.
The talk shows noticeably vary in quality depending on the knowledge and expertise of anchors and panelists. For the most part, however, the talk shows summon the same few politicians and media analysts regardless of the topic. Some days, the same politicians rotate from one show to the other improvising opinions on topics as varied as the shortage of energy, causes of terrorism, and the culture of corruption. Many panelists have no credible expertise to discuss the given topics with any helpful knowledge or beneficial information. Most panelists, including media analysts and lawyers, engage in shouting matches, all talking at the same time, adding little to the discussion but clichés, party slogans, hackneyed jokes, and sensational accusations against each other. The anchors, enjoying the verbal brawl among panelists, further downgrade the poor quality of discussion by provoking guests against each other.
The poor quality of talk shows reveals a profound truth about the Pakistan culture. For decades, the Pakistani culture has tolerated a norm that each person is qualified to render opinions on any topic. It is culturally alien for a Pakistani to say sorry I don't know anything about this topic. Consequently, the culture allows everyone to express opinions on any topic, including how an F-16 flies, what is the most effective treatment for leukemia, or why cars can or cannot be fueled with water. The freedom to express opinions is a fundamental liberty protected under the law of human rights. While Pakistan must be appreciated for turning this freedom into a cultural artifact, the truth remains that not everyone knows how an F-16 flies. Ad-libbing is fun and cathartic, but opinions expressed in educational shows will be far more beneficial if founded on sound knowledge. It is therefore necessary for talk show managers to fight the cultural norm of I-know-it all and carefully select panelists who have the relevant knowledge and expertise on a given topic. Most importantly, the talk shows must diversify the list of panelists and choose competence over convenience in choosing guests.
Even though the talk-show industry is nascent in Pakistan, some anchors have developed impressive professional skills to conduct interviews and pose sharp questions. The anchor of Jirga, for example, is a consummate interviewer. His recent interview with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai was superb and professionally done. The anchor of Aapas Ki Baat is mostly well-prepared and conducts a polite but instructive dialogue. By contrast, the hosts of Bolta Pakistan rarely use their airtime effectively and come across as rude and clownish, engaging in fruitless diatribe.
One defect that mars most shows is the anchors' inadequate preparation. It is no secret that behind every successful anchor is a competent team that researches and prepares the topic materials and coaches the anchor for conducting a meaningful conversation with well-informed experts. In the United States, the PBS NewsHour is a good example of a well-informed show where each anchor prepares for a small segment of the program with the help of research staff. It appears that the Pakistani TV channels do not provide anchors with sufficient resources and research assistance to prepare for the show. A talk show is rarely effective when an ill-prepared anchor engages in a dialogue with poorly-informed guests.
The other defect in Pakistani talk shows is high frequency in that the same anchor conducts four or five full-length shows every week. Capital Talk, for example, is aired at least four times a week. Even though its anchor is a respected media person, he does not get sufficient time to prepare for each show. Most anchors conducting four or five shows a week are rarely well-prepared for the various topics they undertake to discuss. The quality of discussion plummets when a poorly-prepared anchor, instead of facilitating a conversation among panelists, begins to assert his own combative viewpoints. I have seen anchors, not lawyers by training, who boldly interpret the Pakistan constitution to refute the constitutional lawyers invited on the panel.
The Pakistani talk shows aired at various TV channels are designed to educate the public and influence the policymakers in Islamabad. The mission is laudable and should not be abandoned. These shows, however, fail in their mission because most panelists lack the relevant knowledge and expertise to discuss the topics. An anchor conducting four or five full-length shows a week simply does not have adequate prep time to research the topic and conduct a useful dialogue. These shows can be effective if TV channels provide competent research staff to coach the anchor and cut down the weekly frequency of a show from four to one or two. Also, the talk show managers need to expand the roster of national, regional, and international experts in various fields and refrain from inviting the same few persons over and over again.