A TV viewer surfing between news channels on Thursday night can be forgiven for thinking he was seeing double.
Around 10:20 p.m. on CNN-IBN , Congress politician Mani Shankar Aiyar was speaking to Sagarika Ghose on her show Face the Nation. At exactly the same time on NDTV 24x7 , he was having a discussion with Barkha Dutt on her show ‘The Buck Stops Here.'
No, he wasn't displaying super powers of omnipresence. His discussion with Ms. Ghose had simply been recorded earlier.
The compulsions of 24-hour television news often dictate such situations. Popular commentators are in demand across channels, and are sometimes forced to pre-record interviews to cater to telecast schedules. In TV parlance, they are called ‘simsats' — for simulated satellite interviews — or “fake simsats.” And they have become a standard feature in many news bulletins. However, what took Thursday night's double-sighting of Mr. Aiyar to a farcical level was that both channels had labelled their discussions as “live”. “So, which channel had Mani Shankar Aiyar “live” last night? Or has Aiyar broken the time-space continuum?” the Churumuri blog, which reported the episode first, asked.
“I was there live. All the other guests were there live. In a panel discussion format, it is difficult to put a separate bug saying ‘recorded' just for Mani Shankar Aiyar's statements,” said Ms. Ghose, detailing the technical constraints of a daily discussion show on television.
She emphasised that pre-recorded one-on-one interviews on her channel are never labelled “live” and are always introduced by the anchor saying, “Earlier, I spoke to…”
CNN-IBN also has strict disclosure norms to ensure that the interviewee knows he or she is being recorded for a later show, understands the format, is aware of who the other guests are who may be appearing live, and is confident that the questions, answers and interaction pre-recorded with the anchor will be accurately presented during the later telecast.
“As far as I am concerned, a recorded interview is merely input into a discussion in the same way as a print journalist gets inputs from various people for a story,” she said. “If the content remains exactly the same, I believe the integrity of the discussion is upheld.”
Mr. Aiyar was comfortable with the situation. “For TV, it has to be done sometimes. I can't be in different places at the same time,” he laughed. The lack of disclosure to viewers during a partially pre-recorded panel discussion which was labelled “live” may have boggled the unwary channel surfer but no actual harm was done in this case.
However, South Block sources told The Hindu of their unhappiness with the way a pre-recorded interview External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna gave Times Now ’s Arnab Goswami was broadcast. The questions Mr. Goswami asked on air differed in tone and tenor from the ones he had asked during the actual recording in order to give a more aggressive feel to the interview, the officials alleged, and make out as if the minister was on the defensive.
Similarly, when Shashi Tharoor was Minister of State for External Affairs, officials said, he was inserted into a “live” Times Now panel discussion even though his interview was pre-recorded. MEA sources said Mr. Tharoor was displeased with the way his answers were spliced into the show, making it appear that he was not responsive to some of the issues raised by the other participants.
A decade ago, many news channels saw no harm in playing all recorded interviews as “live.” Today, most reputed channels are careful to indicate recorded interviews, and stock footage, in a more transparent approach. The recorded interview in the middle of a live panel discussion, however, remains a sticky issue to be sorted out.
“Prerecorded interviews done with an individual guest one-on-one don't raise ethical debate, and yes, we do say ‘spoke earlier to xx,'” said Ms. Dutt, group editor of NDTV . “[But there is a] real problem with pre-recorded interviews inserted into live debates, since there is no chance for the guest to reply to new points.” She said an internal debate was on in her channel on avoiding this. “I agree TV news needs a well thought out policy on this.”