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...