Unless you work in television, you will probably know of Noddy only as a cute character in an Enid Blyton book who lives in sin with an older man whose name is (nudge-nudge-wink-wink) Big Ears. For us who inhabit TV-land however, the noddy (no capital letters) is an integral part of our trade.
You have seen it too. How often have you watched an interview where, as the interviewee is talking, you see shots of the interviewer nodding his head gravely? You think that the shots are there to break the tedium of watching one person go on and on, and sometimes they are. But more often than not, they are inserted to cover a cut.
It works like this. An interviewer asks a question. The interviewee begins to answer it, gets sidetracked, babbles on and only returns to the meat of the answer at the very end. No TV station wants to carry the whole boring answer. So, we keep the beginning, cut out the rubbish in the middle and go to the end. The shot of the interviewer nodding is inserted only to cover the joint.
Fair enough, you say. Yup, I agree. But it gets worse. The economics of TV are such that often when an interviewer goes to a location to meet a guest, he is accompanied by a single cameraman. That cameraman will first shoot the guest in close-up or mid-shot for the whole interview and will then ask the interviewee to continue talking for a little while so that he can take a few long shots (featuring both interviewer and interviewee). Next, he will ask the guest to wander around or potter about in his office so that there is some footage to use while the journo does the piece that introduces the interview. And then, probably after the guest has left, he will ask the interviewer to ask all his questions once again to an empty chair (remember, during the interview the camera was trained on the guest). Finally, he will ask the interviewer to nod for the camera (this is what we call a noddy) and even smile or laugh. When the interview is finally edited, all these shots will be spliced together. So, you will see an interviewer asking questions that were actually filmed after the guest had left (next time you see an interviewer being rude or aggressive, ask yourself whether he found his courage only in the re-shooting, after the interviewee was safely out of earshot) and laughing at jokes even though the laugh was shot later.
Creative vs unethical: A file photo of Yentob, BBC’s creative director, who inserted noddies of himself into interviews for his series Imagine.
Now, it gets even worse. The British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) has been embroiled in so many ethical scandals these days (the controller of BBC One was sacked over the misleading editing of footage of the Queen) that it is hard to keep track of them all. But here is one you may have missed. Alan Yentob, BBC’s creative director and one of its best-known executives, has been reprimanded for inserting noddies of himself into interviews for his series Imagine . The problem was that Yentob did not actually conduct these interviews himself. They were conducted by his researchers. Later, long after the interviewee and the actual interviewer had left the room, Yentob asked a cameraman to take shots that made it appear as though he had conducted the interviews himself.
Is this cheating? Defenders of the practice say “it is only TV”. Even the Yentob thing is explained away on the grounds that he used bites from various people and needed noddies to cover the edits. As he was fronting the show, it would have confused viewers to see shots of a researcher when they were expecting to see Yentob.
Where you stand on these issues depends on your own ethical standards. But it is safe to say that if the BBC is full of such controversial practices, then Indian TV is far worse off. One instance is the notorious faked live chat (sometimes called a ‘sim-sat’ or something like that to make it sound more respectable.)
Here is what happens: An anchor interviews a guest on a satellite link (or a phone line) early in the day. Then, when the programme goes out live, the interviewee is shown sitting patiently in a window on the screen as the anchor pretends to conduct a live interview, asking the questions again and waiting for the interviewee’s pre-recorded responses. Viewers are given the impression that the conversation is taking place live, and some channels even run a caption reading ‘live’ on the upper right hand corner of the screen.
The advantages of this scam to the channel are massive: no chance of the link failing or of the guest being unavailable in real time; an opportunity to edit the responses; a chance to frame the questions in a way that makes the anchor look better; and even, to rearrange the sequence of answers to suit the flow of the programme and the responses of other guests.
Is this ethical? I don’t know. But everybody who has done live television (except for me, he adds quickly) has probably had to resort to this technique at some stage ever since it was pioneered by the old Star News.
I am on the verge of starting a TV channel myself, so I am grappling uncertainly with these ethical issues. But what about you? Do you, as viewers, feel that you are being conned? Is it time to follow the British example and review the standard practices of Indian news television?
Write in and tell me. I would love to know.
(Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Read his previous Lounge columns on www.livemint.com/vir-sanghvi)