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Updated: April 21, 2013 21:56 IST
AN ARMCHAIR WITH A VIEW

And on prime time tonight

ANAND VENKATESWARAN
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If a newsroom began to feel every disaster, every political lie, every injustice that passed through, it would take a terrible toll in sanity. Illustration: Satwik Gade
If a newsroom began to feel every disaster, every political lie, every injustice that passed through, it would take a terrible toll in sanity. Illustration: Satwik Gade

A writer relives his experience in the newsroom.

The breakfast anchor says, “And after the break, Anand Venkateswaran with the weather.”

“When is he coming on? There’s only five minutes left,” an aunt said. “Anytime now, keep watching,” said Periappa (father’s older brother/uncle/general elder in the house).

“So…who are we waiting for?” asked a cousin who walked in a minute ago. Irritation all around. “Tch, shhh, which world are you in? It’s all we’ve been talking about. You should first stop spending so much time on handbook.” Cousin peeved. “Ok, first of all, it’s Facebook. I just walked in for God’s sake! Tell me, what are we looking at?”

“It’s your athimber, the one Priya is going to marry. He is a chief editor in that channel.” Periappa squirms. “Nothing has been fixed yet. The boy and girl are still talking.”Ten pairs of eyes roll in unison. The entire room is at risk of vertigo.

Trumpets and drumrolls on TV. The news is back. The sizeable family gathering, huddled in front of the family television burdened with family portraits, applauds briefly. The younger ones go “Yay, there he is!” The elders nod and look at each other. Eyes in the hall narrow. “What’s wrong with his hair?” inquires another aunt. “Hair is fine. He’s very fair,” declares a grandmother. “Amma, is he wearing lip gloss? It’s so shiny!” Periappa clears his throat loudly. “I can’t hear what he’s saying. Quiet everyone!”

And that was the first time I entered the drawing room of my in-laws’ house in Coimbatore. They’d never seen me before. In days to come, they would excitedly tell my wife-to-be that they saw me, a ‘news reader’, on television; that I pointed to a map and forecast Coimbatore’s temperature. They managed to somehow squeeze in the weird hair and lip gloss bit in the same conversation. Incidentally, I was the channel’s first weather anchor of the male persuasion. It took a while to sink in. Ah, good old TV days.

Not too long ago, I worked for a brief, intense spell in television. I was a copyeditor when I left, but I’d also worked as a senior desk hand, and anchor for weather and a few minor segments like viewers’ feedback, blogs and explainers.

That stint remained mostly a blur in memory, until I watched this HBO series – the Newsroom. I confess I didn’t watch it on HBO, but that’s beside the point. The series hit very close to home. It unlocked some forgotten responses of hyperactivity, pumped adrenaline through dusty capillaries.

If you’ll care to join me, I’ll take you through one day in a newsroom. I took the tour through the back door, but you might like the route from the front; easier on the eye. Let’s start with the anchor, that person you see in your screen for much of the bulletin.

Looking dapper, oozing confidence, urging you to “not go away” and “stay with us,” an anchor’s is a tough job, though it seems incredibly easy from the other side of the screen. The stresses and variables behind that powdered face facing the camera are scary.

For starters, there’s this wonderful invention called the teleprompter. A teleprompter is a translucent screen on which your lines scroll down slowly. Wonderful, really, except that it is a moody ba****d. Imagine this for a second: you’re delivering a carefully worded political analysis, when the words disappear, or scrolling control goes haywire, or text jumps randomly. Tens of thousands of people are watching you at that very second.

Or you’re chatting along about a gentle story on kitten videos, when all of a sudden breaking news happens — you’ll have to keep talking until real information arrives. Keep talking to avoid the loudest noise in television: silence.

Phew. Scary place, the anchor’s chair. Let’s get behind screen now, shall we? We can travel through the anchor’s earpiece, his umbilical cord.

On the other side of the earpiece is the rundown/bulletin producer, who the anchor trusts implicitly during the bulletin. There are legends about this relationship. This producer has at his command all the stuff the bulletin is made of — graphics, footage, sound bites and story packages — two-minute chunks of packaged news.

But where do these elements come from? They come from that huge room with all that chaos — with lots of shouting and waving, eager-looking kids running with tape or sheaves of paper, serious-looking people with glasses, and so on. Welcome to the sweatshop.

There’s the assignment desk that tracks every developing story, every court date, every scheduled event, and deputes resources to cover them. Assignment desk is why you see a TV van at the scene even before the cops arrive. They organise panel discussions, they are charged with bringing home the best experts, roping in the hottest celebrities. Once the information is in, it’s up to the multitude of minions to make of it what they will.

To get a story package ready, the following things happen simultaneously. Reporters and cameramen send in a stream of information — videos to the assignment desk, points and text to the copyeditors. The copyeditor begins to write the story, clearly defining voice-overs, slotting in sound bites. The desk hands download all the videos, fight tooth and nail for edit bays where the story will be put together.

Is your head spinning with information overload yet? Feel like bolting yet? The exit’s that way. But be a sport, won’t you. The day is almost done.

There’s a slice of heavy irony here. A newsroom is high-strung because every teeny bit of news is treated as all-important. Funnily enough, newsmen are a terribly cynical lot, who can make good jokes about disasters and bad ones about everything else.

Before you judge them, though, consider this: if a newsroom began to feel every disaster, every political lie, every injustice that passed through, it would take a terrible toll in sanity. The newsroom channels the cynicism and repressed angst into a bulletin. As Sylvester Stallone said in Expendables 2, they “keep it light until it’s time to get dark.” Politicians and bureaucrats get their heads bitten off on prime time; rogues are brought down by sting operations.

Journalists talk of experience, of learning on the job. The curve isn’t the same for everyone but, in my humble opinion, the lesson is incomplete if you’ve never been in television. Even if it means doing a whole load of elephant stories. Ever since I did a pathos-ridden news package on dead elephants, I was called every time a pachyderm got hit by a train or misbehaved in the summer heat. I was called elephant man. It didn’t help that I weighed 86 kilos.

Gotta love the newsroom; perfect combo of idealism and cynicism; intelligence and pig-headedness; chaos and, well, chaos. Pain if you’re part of one, but sweet fare for nostalgia.

Email: vi.ananda@gmail.com

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