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Behind the bling of talk shows

Celebrities sitting with hands clasped in interview at television studio.  

In 1998, my assignment with a U.S. company required a two-week stint in Chicago. As part of its employee welfare programme, the company was duty-bound to facilitate one happening event in the city for me to attend.

Several colleagues wanted me to attend a basketball match, their favourite sport, similar to our IPL, and to cheer for Chicago Bulls, the popular local team, and their star player, Michael Jordan, who was propelling the team that year to the top of the championship, personally winning several most valuable player awards. That he was retiring that year made watching a basketball match a poignant and must-see event.

As talk shows were making their appearance on Indian television about that time, I opted instead to see the Oprah Winfrey Show, a highly rated daytime talk show featuring book clubs, interviews and self-improvement segments, produced and hosted by its namesake, Oprah, in her Harpo (her name spelt backwards) studio in Chicago.

On the selected day, I set off to the west side neighbourhood of Chicago, where the Harpo studio was located. It did not seem like the nicest part of the town and the dismal and melancholy surroundings seemed so unlike the America I had imagined the country would be. I began to wonder whether I had missed my way, before I suddenly spotted the studio in the distance, teeming with her fan club consisting predominantly of middle-aged men and women.

We were shortly herded into an auditorium and were constantly reminded that we would be appearing on TV and to make efforts to look and be at our best. We were repeatedly made to clap rhythmically and to cheer loudly and given strict instructions to show our enthusiasm whenever Oprah looked in our direction. Finally Oprah arrived, gave some instructions, spoke to her guest of the day and disappeared into her chamber, staying precisely for five minutes. There was no chance of observing Oprah’s legendary journalistic toughness, her robust humour and empathy which made guests voluntarily reveal their stories to an international TV audience. Was coming here really worth the trouble? Wouldn’t watching an energetic game of basketball with Michael Jordan bouncing, dribbling the ball and scoring goals have been a much better choice?

Today, talk shows on Indian TV are full of human interest stories, comedy, celebrity interviews with massive gatherings and larger-than-life hosts. The cheering crowds, smiling audiences, radiant hosts are all part of viewer-friendly programmes packaged in slick capsules.

While we enjoy the shows, do we know what goes on behind the glamour curtain? Shouldn’t we spare a thought for talk show audiences, who go without breaks, sometimes without food or water, cramped into auditoriums for hours on end, forced to appear cheerful and joyous despite the hard work and toil? Two decades later, I am glad I chose the Oprah option because it allows me to appreciate the reality behind talk shows and to empathise with the anonymous audience.

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 9:26:48 PM |

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