15 July 2011

What went wrong with BBC Newsnight's latest attempt to involve a studio audience?

A couple of nights ago, BBC's Newsnight, advertised in advance as involving a live studio audience, attracted quite a lot of negative comments on Twitter, both during and after the programme. The main complaint was that the audience was rather unforthcoming and that even Jeremy Paxman seemed to be having trouble getting any of them to say very much about the phone-hacking scandal.

Never blame the audience
When things go wrong in a presentation or speech, my advice, like that of many presentation trainers, is never blame the audience - because there's no such thing as a bad audience. And I think the same goes for TV news and current affairs programmes that try to get an audience involved in a discussion.

In fact, on this occasion, I can even claim to have been wise before the event. After an earlier tweet from Newsnight on Wednesday, I'd tweeted: "Oh dear, @BBCNewsnight trailing 'live studio audience' tonight - expect hopeless chairing and zzzzz..."

This was based on having seen many such programmes, in which the presenter shows little or no technical appreciation of how turn-taking works and how the implicit rules change according to how many people are involved - and how someone's ability to perform in a TV interview is not unrelated to their experience of being interviewed (or lack of it) - for more on which, see Clayman & Heritage, The News Interview: Journalists and Public Figures on the Air (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

A multi-patched quilt
So what we got the other night was a patchwork quilt of a programme with far too many patches in it. In keeping with the modern myth that no one is capable of paying attention for more than a few seconds at a time, it kept switching at regular intervals between six quite distinct elements - of which the various attempts to involve the live audience, who were the only TV novices on the show, made up a mere sixth of the total:

1. Paxman + Newsnight political editor (1+1)
2. Paxman + cabinet minister (1+1)
3. Paxman + pundits (1+2)
4. Paxman + MPs (1+3)
5. Paxman + Audience (1+25)
6. Video footage from day's events.

The different colours highlight different sizes of group featured on the show - differences that inevitably involve different turn-taking rules - and depend for their success (or otherwise) on the participants, and especially the chair, having at least some tacit awareness of what they are.

The frequent flitting backwards and forwards between each of them made life difficult even for as experienced a presenter as Jeremy Paxman, let alone the inexperienced live audience. And, of all these permutations, ensuring effective turn-taking in such a large group is by far the most difficult.

Add to that the fact that the poor old audience kept being interrupted by cutaways to yet another few seconds of video film or by Paxman turning away to ask "what do you think, Danny?" and the attempt to pack such a miscellany of interviews, film footage and 'discussion' into 45 minutes, and is it any wonder that they came across as rather less than forthcoming?

I wasn't at all surprised that such such a format didn't work. But the last people I'd blame for that would be the audience in the Newsnight studio...


Anonymous said...

Interesting analysis - explains some of the pain, thanks!

I also thought they were all too intimidated by Paxman's reputation to risk venturing an opinion. It was like teaching when you know one half the class hasn't done the reading the other half hasn't understood it, and all are silently praying you won't pick on them

Max Atkinson said...

Thanks - glad you found it interesting.

I suspect Paxman's reputation may, as you say, have played a part in intimidating them. But I think there's a more technical/general reason why there were so many silences when he fired yet another open question at them.

When interviewing people for academic jobs years ago, I noticed that, when the chair got to the point of asking "Are there any questions you'd like to ask us?", there was always (yes always) quite an extended a pause before the candidate would say "Er, not really - other than what's the starting salary you have in mind?"

I think those recurrent pauses occurred in response to the major shift in turn-taking arrangements that had just been (implicitlyl) announced by the chair's question. Up until then, the candidate had been on the receiving end of Q-A-Q-A-Q-A, etc. But now, in stead of being in the A slot for 30-40 minutes o, they suddenly found themselves being launced into into the Q slot.

In other words, what I'm suggesting is that such sudden changes in the turn-taking arrangements take a bit of time for people to get used to. That's what I think happened on this show. Had Paxman not kept switching away into the rules of other games ("What do you think, Danny?") and persisted with the audience for rather longer than he did, I think they would soon have got the hang of it and an interesting discussion might have followed.

But, as I said, the trouble was that there were far too much flitting back and forth between the 6 different components of the programme.

Richard Edwards said...

I think the reason was quite simple. People are not exercised about the phone hacking in the same way as politicians. Sure its a disgusting invasion of privacy. Criminal to boot. But is it surprising? No. We all know the political classes are using synthetic anger to cover their self-interest in nobbling News International. And we all know that if it wasn't for questionable behaviour by the press the expenses scandal would not have come to light.

Max Atkinson said...

Thanks for this, Richard. I agree with what you way about the public being less exercised about the issue than the media.

But I still think that it was a mistake to divide the participants into so many (and I'd say too many) different 'teams', to keep swapping so frequently between them and repeatedly distracting us with video sequences that, for obvious reasons, weren't necessarily relevant to where the discussion had just left off.

TonyOX3 said...

I rarley find Paxman to be a good interviewer, alternating as he does between being patronising and aggressive. He has a tactic of asking a slightly off-the-mark and wild opening question (trying to throw the subject off-guard, I assume), then pressing on with that question when the nonplussed interviewee doesn't quite know how to respond. This rarely results in anything new emerging and just wastes valuable programme time.

He's particularly bad with 'ordinary people', so no surprise about the ask-the-audience show the other night. What a daft opening question to throw out to a room: "Are you surprised by [the hacking scandal]?". What did he expect? "Yes, I was totally surprised, Jeremy", or "Of course not. Nothing the tabloid media does could ever surprise me."

I'd have gone for a show of hands on a straight yes/no answer. "Put your hand up if you think Rebekah Brooks should resign". Then "Yes, you sir, why do you think she should go?" And so on into discussion.

Of the Newsnight regulars Gavin Esler is about the best. Kirsty Wark has her list of questions which she doggedly works through regardless of the responses she's getting. Emily Maitliss (sp?) constantly interrupts instead of listening. The programme does do good work sometimes, but not as much as it should given how much it costs in salaries and production.

Max Atkinson said...

TonyOX3 - thanks for this perceptive analysis of Paxman and other Newsnight regulars - which which I'm in complete agreement.

As far as Paxman & Wark are concerned, both of them all too often sound to me as though they're bored with the job and leave me wondering why the BBC doesn't save a few thousand licence fees by pensioning them off ASAP.

Meanwhile, if Gavin Esler is the best of the current 'regulars', the most promising up and coming one to watch is surely Mishal Husain. But, unfortunately, she has yet to graduate from the 'very occasional' to 'regular' presenter.