Sunday, April 22, 2012

Listening Heads, an essay > On the art of the television interview

As an admitted news junkie, I watch a lot of news; probably more than I should for my blood pressure & good humor.

And at least three times this week, I watched 'talking heads' answer questions put to them by anchors, only to be asked a follow up question they've just answered.

Not only did I find this annoyingly stupid but it clearly pointed to an age-old problem: we don't listen to each other. It's not good for business, it doesn't foster good friendships or personal relations, it's bad for politics but there's no excuse for it in the television news interview.

Those who have been employed in television know it works in the background:

A producer/associate producer/writer will pre-interview a booked guest before they appear on the set for their live, spontaneous, probing Q & A with the anchor. In this way the interview is focused & the guest is sort of rehearsed.

The member of the production staff assigned to this pre-interview, takes notes, hones the Q & A to fit the time allotted for the segment & then provides those notes -- probably in bullet form -- to the anchor who will read down the list (usually while you can't see them because the camera is focused on the guest who is answering the previous question).

Sometimes one of the bullet points is a follow up question -- which may have already been answered by the guest -- but guess what? The anchor asks the question anyway.

And if you watch carefully, you will see in the eyes of the 'talking head', a glint of anger, frustration and the question: 

"Didn't you hear what I just said?" which, of course, they can't say out loud so they labor to repeat what they just said in a different form, wasting both their time & mine as the viewer.

Like a lawyer who should never ask a question without first knowing the answer, the television pre-interview is a form of TV homework.

And this kind of preparation is also used for entertainment shows. Craig Ferguson (Late Night with Craig Ferguson) makes a point of ripping up his interview notes & cavalierly throwing them away whenever a guest sits down on his sofa & his interviews suffer for it. 

But the best of the entertainment or news anchors and interviewers use the notes as -- exactly that -- but LISTEN to what their guests have to say. Then they may ask a meaningful follow up which can take the interview into an entirely different, un-rehearsed & possibly news-making direction.

Finally, we see the following all too often:

Interviewer: Did you kill Mr.'X'?

Interviewee: Yes, I did.

Interviewer: We've run out of time. Thank you very much for sharing your story. (Turning to audience) Coming up: 'the clown who ate his nose'. Please stay tuned for that! 

Music & dissolve to an animated graphic with a clip showing the clown eat his nose, leaving me to wonder why I should hang around. 

Channel click.