Scoring on a talk show
These are two of the conclusions of Birte Schohaus’ research, “Entertaining politics, seriously?”, for which she will receive her PhD from the Research Centre for Media and Journalism Studies at the University of Groningen on 14 March, the day before the elections. She wanted to use her research to find out how the political debate in talk shows comes about.
‘Geert Wilders doesn’t do talk shows because they’re politically risky and he doesn’t stand anything to gain from them’, says Schohaus. ‘Wilders can tweet his opinions without anyone going up against him. You can’t do that on a talk show. And he knows that all too well. He uses the argument “you guys are too left-wing anyway, I won’t stand a chance”. It’s all to his own advantage.’
Politicians who do engage in public debates thoroughly prepare in order to present their message in the right manner, Schohaus concludes. A manner matching the format of the talk show they are on. A programme such as Buitenhof allows Rutte plenty of time to explain his reasoning. Shows with stricter programming, such as De Wereld Draait Door, will force him to summarise his message in a few pithy one-liners.
On the other hand, talk shows prefer politicians who match their programme’s format, says Schohaus. For example, the manner in which guests get their message across is just as important as the content of that message. ‘It has to be interesting to watch.’ The same applies to the subjects. Buitenhof, for instance, likes to discuss subjects suited to a well-educated, politically informed audience. DWDD will spend limited or no time on a complicated subject.
So Schohaus understands why politicians adapt their message to the show they appear on. ‘Spokespeople like to compare it to football. When the Dutch team is playing they prepare for the team they’re facing. They use a different strategy when playing France than when they’re playing Germany, for example.’
According to Schohaus, the talk show creators do not particularly like that politicians and their spokespeople prepare all their answers beforehand. However, this does not mean that the viewers only hear sound bites, she says. Journalists and politicians agree on the subject, the time allotted, and who speaks when beforehand. ‘But they can never completely predict what’ll happen.’
There are two criteria politicians have to meet before they get invited, Schohaus says. On the one hand, they have to be politically relevant. That means that the more ‘power’ a politician has, the more attractive he is to talk shows. On the other, they need to be smooth talkers. They might be tempted to infodump, but if viewers stop watching after five minutes the talk shows are in trouble. ‘Ratings are very important to talk shows. All they want to do is score.’
Schohaus says that experimenting with the format of a show by inviting more unknown guests and discussing less obvious subjects might make talk shows a little more diverse. She would advise them to take a few risks.