The Decline and Fall of the Pakistani News Anchor

Apr 15th, 2010 | By | Category: Uncategorized

The following is the first post from Wajahat S. Khan’s new blog, My Name is Khan. The piece originally published in Aurora, Dawn’s Marketing Magazine, in 2006. Khan was launching Dawn News TV at the time, as Head of the International Desk. You probably know him best from his show TalkBack on Dawn. Today he is not only starting his own blog, but also he is writing some really excellent critiques of the media for the new journal Express Tribune.

Let’s be honest. People watch people. We love it. It’s a part of our natural need and systemic.  Some of us get bored and start watching birds or writing columns. The rest of us keep at it – people watching is the modern endemic of man. Its voyeurism’s coup de grace.Thus the TV.

Television is the Henry Kissinger of media. It has survived half a century of questionable policy making with true grit. It’s been criticized and protested against. It has been used and abused by governments, and it has used and abused governments right back. It’s been malevolently targeted and violently attacked. It’s made some terrible errors and affected the lives of millions of people. It has survived slurs like ‘boob-tube’ and ‘idiot-box’ only to come back harder, like Tony Soprano after an anxiety attack, to stake its claim. Out of the Quartet of the Essentials of the Modern Living (the refrigerator, the microwave oven and the W/C being the other three), the TV is probably the most utilized in terms of hours of interaction with human-beings, unless you live in your kitchen or worse, your bathroom.

Now flatter, leaner and meaner, with more functions and less buttons, TV still dominates our lives and (depending on its placement and content), ends up being responsible for how much we love our families, our culture and our country. In effect, TV has become the chosen representative of the human race. If we were Greco-Romans, we would call it Telly: The God of Everyday Life.

And if Telly is our daily deity, then it’s high priest has to be The Anchor.

Ah, The Anchor! Bringer of all news, good and bad. Now in Technicolor with all sorts of variations: VJs for the young and restless. Cooking-Show hosts for the consumed homemakers. Red-Carpet Hosts for the desperate housewives. Car-show hosts for the testosterone-prone boys with toys. Televangelist aalims for the over-zealous seekers of truth. Cross-dressing divas for the moderately enlightened. Political talk-show hosts for the drawing room aristocrats. And News Anchors for the teeming millions.

This space is dedicated to the unsung hero of Pakistani TV: The Anonymous News Anchor. You’ve seen him or her before: Bad suits on regular days. Scary shaloos on Eid. The Pak flag on the lapel on 14th August. The dupattas in Ramadan. The atrocious make-up on and off Halloween. The Karachi-heavy accent. The really difficult Urdu words. The never breaking eye-contact. The exaggerated head movements. The dekhte raihiye rendition of ‘we’ll be right back’. And the complete lack of credibility.

I know I sound rather pessimistic. I am (more on that in just a bit). So why did I call News Anchors heroes, and that too of the unsung, pathos-attracting, nice-guys-finish-last kind?

Because News Anchors are nice guys who are finishing last in the brand race in Pakistan. No, I don’t mean that news bulletins are not getting sponsored (they are). I mean that news channels (and hybrid channels which feature bulletins) have failed to develop ‘personalities’ who bring us our news. In effect, we don’t have any Walter Cronkites and Peter Jenningss and Dan Rathers and Ted Koppels. We don’t even have any Ron Burgundys. We have the Anonymous News Anchor. And he/she is a brand waiting to be discovered.

Wait a minute, you say. We do have news heavy-weights. We have Hamid Mir, Kamran Khan, Shahid Masood, Talat Hussein. They are ‘known’ aren’t they? They are surely brands themselves?

Sure, brands they are, but News Anchors they are not. All of the above named are journalists or analysts turned talking heads. They are Talk-Show Hosts. They take a slice of what is called the ‘news day’ or the ‘news week’ and talk to other people about it (its like watching the highlights of a cricket match versus the real thing). They do not bring us our daily news at 9. They bring us politicized and debatable chunks of it. And they don’t come close to the ubiquity and air-time share of the News Anchor because they don’t do bulletins (which are the bread and butter of news channels).

Yet, news and hybrid channels fail to create Pakistani Edward R. Murrows– brands which stir aspiration – personalities which the nation wants to hear from on a daily basis.

I want to drive this home. Think about it. Most of us who are familiar with the medium can name at least one or two heavy-weights in most of the TV product-categories which demand anchors. We’ve got VJs (Anushey, Faizan Haque) who are brands. We’ve got political talk-show hosts (Hamid Mir, Shahid Masood) and social talk-show hosts (Mehtab Rashidi, Naeem Bukhari) who are brands. Even special events (Fakhr-e-Alam) and religious shows (Aamir Liaqat, Junaid Jamshed) have their stalwarts. So where are the star anchor men and women of news?

This is where the editorializing begins, so maybe this is the perfect opportunity to introduce my self. I’ve been a journalist since high-school. I’ve been a broadcast journalist for the last 3 years. I’ve managed news brand strategy and product development for the largest private news broadcaster in this country for the last two years. I’m currently handling the international desk for an upcoming English-language news channel. I’ve survived the jaws of the beast called Broadcast News, and I have the following theories about why news anchors are the most underdeveloped brand in TV today.

The ‘Strong Capital’ Theory (Or The Fact That News Anchors Are Not ‘Real’ Journalists Approach)

Everyone thinks and asks questions. Everyone who thinks and asks questions and then writes them down is a journalist. Everyone who thinks and asks questions on TV is a broadcast journalist. Think about that for a minute before you read further.

Imagine a system of government where the cities do all the work and the capital does all the playing. No, don’t think the Government of Pakistan (though you’re not far off the mark with that one). Now imagine that same situation being applied to a news channel: The News Director or Editor calls the shots editorially (as he or she should), but there the news anchor (who is essentially the news delivery vehicle for the channel) ends up just taking orders (which in this case is following the script on the teleprompter and asking the questions which are fed to him/her by the control room). The end-result of this system (which is real and dominates the way news is done on PTV, Geo News, ARY One World and Aaj, the four leading news sources) is that the News Anchor becomes a News Reader. Effectively, the News Anchor becomes a puppet. He/she lacks any sort of command and control over the content he/she is broadcasting. This leads to a lack of value addition to the news being broadcast (which, short of exclusives, is pretty much the same across all channels). That leads to a lack of personality, the most vital ingredient needed for becoming a brand. Because people watch people, a ‘connection’ with these weak personalities is not made, primarily because they are not journalists (they are not thinking and not asking their own questions). The news delivery vehicle has no teeth. It is amorphous and vague. The brand is left undeveloped. This is a structural problem inherited from PTV by the private networks.  It’s endemic across all news channels, and its critical.

Note: If you’re thinking ‘Shaista Zaid and Azhar Lodhi used to have personality’, then give yourself a pat on the back. Sure, those two stars of PTV News had personality, and tons of it. But those were the days of  PTV’s monopoly of the airwaves. There were two primary news bulletins in the country. Shaista had the 7 pm English News slot; Azhar had the 9 pm Khabarnama. News was an institution, not the free-wheeling competition of breaking news and fastest firsts which it became after the private players entered the market. And just so you know about a case in point, Azhar got fired for ‘editorializing’ (crying and chest-beating) during the live transmission of President Zia-ul-Haq’s funeral. Shaista still makes cameos for PTV, but do you notice?

The ‘Parrots Of The Subterranean’ Theory (Or The These Guys Don’t Know What They’re Talking About Approach)

We’ve discussed how there is a structural problem between the editorial high-command (the editors and directors who decide what’s going on air) and the news delivery vehicle (the news anchors themselves), and how broadcast output is weighed strictly in favor of the former. One ramification is the lack of personality, as mentioned above. The other one is even more critical: a lack of credibility.

Have you ever been to a fancy restaurant and asked the waiter how something is prepared. I always do. I went to a local French restaurant the other day and asked a waiter how the crème bru-lee was prepared. He knew how to pronounce it with the fancy French accent and everything, but he had no idea about how they glazed the top. Thus, I didn’t order it. I had my doubts about how good it would be. A restaurant where the waiters don’t know how to pitch menu items to a customer is not worth eating at.

I believe our news anchors are like that half-baked waiter. They know how to pronounce, not announce. As our news anchors become yes-men type, teleprompter-dependent news readers, they don’t develop any ‘tacit skills’ or areas of specialty that are critical for any one interested in journalism and/or branding. They do not work on their own material and thus do not have ownership of content. For them, there is no difference between Beirut or Baghdad, Bajaur or Bombay. There is no emphasis, no pressure, no interest which wheels the audience into the story. They are by-rote performers, ill-informed sources, suited-up parrots. But parrots, though entertaining, are not credible news sources.

The ‘Perceived Captive Audience’ Theory (Or The Everyone Will Pay Attention And Understand Approach)

Lets be honest. For most people, news is boring. There’s lots of numbers and names and places, and the creative work always looks like a map-test from O-level geography class. And considering that we live in a society where there are more bombs, guns, planes and tanks than ever before, where stock markets are always crashing, where some country or the other is in a recession, where some epidemic is always on the rise, news is usually, well, depressing. Still, we persevere and watch. We want to know. And we expect that the people bringing us the news will do it in a way which we can absorb and understand fully.

That’s a great expectation.

TV news production and copy is an inherently and fundamentally different type of ball-game than newspapers. In newspapers, you have time to produce your product. In TV, you don’t. In newspapers, a reporter has more room to work on his or her story, just as a reader could potentially have all the time he/she needs to read it. In TV, viewer attention for a story is clocked by the seconds. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, TV news copy is written for the ‘listening’ (versus for the ‘reading’ in papers, of course). To reiterate, writing for TV news is a different kind of ball-game.

Consider. Some time ago, a young reporter (trained in the traditions of a large, private and PTV-influenced news channel) approached me for help in a script for the Clifton oil-spill story. He kept on pushing the amount of the oil spill in x-thousand tons. I told him that people will not get the relevancy of the story if he keeps speaking in tons. No one gets tons. No one has any idea how much a ton of oil is, much less thousands of tons. So I told him to calculate x-thousand tons to y-thousand litres (people buy petrol by the litre). Then I told him to contextualize the amount further by saying something like ‘the oil spill was y-thousand litres, which is what Karachiites consume over z-weeks’. All of sudden, the story made sense. A regular Joe could get and relate to the story. A seemingly complicated number was ‘boiled down’ and made to ‘connect’ to the audience.

Unfortunately, producers of TV news in Pakistan do not understand these differences and subtleties. Scripting and copy for TV news is primarily done by copy editors with a newspaper background, and writing for print is an old habit which dies hard. The result: news anchors end up sounding like a newspaper. Their copy is inherently complicated and convoluted, without the necessary ‘toning down’, backgrounders and contextualization needed to engage an audience which can (and does) switch to another channel any time. In effect, the news become archaic, aged, high-browed, over-complicated and highly in-accessible.

And the guinea pig in this failed experiment? Once again the news anchor, who ends up sounding like he’s auditioning for a Aligarh mushaira competition rather than being the conversational, consultative and counseling voice of reason which a news anchor should sound like.

So what’s it going to be? Why should we be worried about brand creation within television news?

Lets look at how ‘news worthy’ the Pakistani market is: Journalism is proliferating. There are several newspapers in the country. News channels are starting up in force. The government’s politicking continues to keep us in the eye of the storm of global security concerns (the ‘best’ type of news from a purely ratings driven perspective). We are a ‘front-line state’ in the so-called War on Terror. We are at the doorstep of a national election, perhaps one of the most important ones in our history. We are at a crucial cross-roads of negotiating the Kashmir issue. We have at least two insurgencies in our western provinces. We are empowering our women. We are dressing up our middle class. We have the best batsman in the world. We test nuke-capable rockets once a month. It’s safe to say that Pakistan is highly, if not terribly, ‘news worthy’.

But these facts need to be closely re-examined in the light of how we will be disseminating such information. We are a young-nation (two-thirds of the nation is under 25 years of age), but our public education system’s plight means less people will be reading newspapers and more people will be watching television news in the future. So, can we create personalities on television we can connect with and accept as viable sources of information? Can we make the news on TV more user-friendly and accessible? Can we bring the burgeoning and ubiquitous younger audience into the currently abstract and unexciting loop of broadcast news?

The answer is not blowing in the wind – it’s on the air. Watch this space for further updates. And don’t touch that remote control.


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