Friday, November 11, 2011

Simsats and All That

Ok, so I finally saw the "live" debate that CNN-IBN ran with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The offending bit is around the 9 minute mark, if you haven't watched it. My first thought: I'm surprised such an incident didn't happen earlier.

Everyone probably knows what a simsat is by now. There are differing views on whether it is ethical. Before I get to those, let me explain why simsats happen.

In one word: timing. Some guests like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar frankly deserve to have their views aired only during a 9 pm bulletin. Not only do they attract eyeballs (aka TRPs); they also provide sane arguments.

Unfortunately, with so many TV channels around, scheduling conflicts are legion. Guests may promise to appear on a show at 9:30 but get tied up in another studio until 9:45. Ruins the show, doesn't it. So we have the simsat. And yes, American & British channels also do it for the same reasons Indian ones do. 

The uninitiated should know that many TV-savvy guests request simsats, themselves so they can appear on multiple channels in one night or spend the evening on other engagements. That's how a Ravishankar Prasad or Manish Tewari can *appear live* on all channels at prime time, when in fact they may not be live on any one of them.

Here's how a simsat should work. The guest sits before a camera at say, 5 or 6 pm. The anchor asks him or her questions in the same order as they would appear at 9 pm. The guest's responses are then 'packaged' (with mild editing to remove stumbles and stammering, etc). At 9 pm, the anchor repeats the questions live, while a producer plays out the relevant packaged answer.

At their best, simsats appear 'live' and keep the viewer engaged. In a one-on-one situation where it's just the anchor and the guest, simsats pose no problems. The anchor asks his/her questions and the guest responds with full answers. Fair play. Some channels even pre-record the anchors questions and play these out in order. Now, I'd personally still prefer a disclaimer saying "this was recorded earlier", but as long as the content remains unchanged there are no serious problems in calling these live.  

But simsats have limitations. And the biggest one was exposed on Wednesday.

In a multi-guest debate, guests should have the right to respond. In an ideal world, Sagarika Ghose would have told her audience and panel that Sri Sri's responses were pre-recorded. It avoids misrepresentation & the live guests know they cannot make statements or ask questions that the simsat guest won't be able to respond to, as is their right.

She didn't. That's where things began to unravel. Arun Bhatia believed genuinely that Sri Sri was present during the debate and posed him a question. Sagarika should have taken the difficult option then of explaining that Sri Sri was not present live. It would have been super embarrassing but it would have prevented things from getting worse. She didn't. In a move I can only describe as "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot", she proceeded to direct Mr Bhatia's question to Sri Sri. The producer - whom I don't blame at all - played out the answer s/he thought would fit best. Of course it didn't. The game was up.

That's my view on simsats. I see no problems with one-on-one situations if a guest's responses haven't been manipulated. In multi-guest situations it is best to tell the audience that X or Y guest's interview was recorded earlier. Some anchors already do this. I suspect many, many more will do so going forward.

Fun aside if you're interested in knowing more about simsats. Most channels now record what are called "noddies". These are 10-15 second shots of the guest nodding their head as if they're listening to the debate or question being asked. They're played in those infamous six-windows with all the guests faces being shown. One channel once had four guests as simsats. Each had noddies recorded. It was hilarious to watch the noddies skip a few frames as they hit the 10-second loop. 

Yeah, there are limits to trickery. And when those limits are exposed, it can border on the unethical as it was in the CNN-IBN case or downright embarrassing as it was in the "noddies" case.

UPDATE: Sagarika Ghose has repeatedly apologised for the screw up. I'm inclined to let it rest. Afterall, even the best batsman in the world can't avoid a few ducks in his career. I think she had brain explosion at that moment and couldn't recover. As I said, it was a "WTF" moment. People make mistakes. If they own up to them unconditionally - as Sagarika has - just move on.


  1. CNN-IBN has a history of manipulations behind it. The ever sanctimonious bunch of media loonies have caused a bigger trust deficit, even compared to the politicians. You have to be from the same fraternity and un-ethical, to even talk of letting it go!

  2. The noddies and simsats. God! What ugly truths in the media industry. I can see why they are needed. But I am really really disturbed by them.

    BTW, this is not something new.
    I have seen India-sweden Davis cup (in sweden) with Hindi commentary from people in Delhi studio. Of course DD didn't bother to tell because probably everyone knew.

    I have also watched South India Filmfare awards in Hyderabad with compere talking in Tamil.

    All simple CTRL+C and CTRL+V job in modern technology.

  3. To Admin: I've been asked by many people why I wrote "let it go". Here's why: there isn't much you can do except rage online/ at the watercooler.
    Feel free to carry on if you think it will change things.
    Some want to sue Mrs Ghose for "cheating" them. They're free to try as well, although I doubt that will get the result you're looking for either.
    Secondly, since she's admitted her mistake, I doubt you'll see a repeat of last week's incident on her show at least. I hope.

    To Sairam: Thanks for recogising why I wrote this post. It's an explainer of the status quo, with my views on how simsats/pre-recorded interviews should be treated. Nothing more, notihing less.

    To anyone who is curious, I've anchored dozens of simsats. Most have gone through without labelling them as "pre-recorded". It is one of many reasons I decided to quit TV journalism for the moment. You may read this post for some of my thouhts on media ethics.


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