It is not the style of the host or the opinions of the editors that determines which political guests appear on the six main Dutch talk shows, but the format of the programme itself. Guests are selected on the basis of political relevance and ‘talkability’, depending on the nature of the programme. Editors are reluctant to experiment with little-known main guests. These findings are from research conducted by Birte Schohaus, who will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 14 March. Her research also contradicts critics of talk shows, who claim that too little airtime is given to ‘the man in the street’.
Anyone looking for a comfortable way to keep abreast of news and current affairs need look no further than the four weekday talk shows (De Wereld Draait Door, Jinek, RTL Late Night and Pauw) or the two Sunday shows, Buitenhof and WNL op Zondag. These programmes are not only important to viewers; they are also an essential vehicle for politicians to get their message across. So how does the relationship between talk shows and politics work? Schohaus studied various shows to see how they selected their guests and topics. She interviewed dozens of programme makers, press officers and politicians, analysed discussion content and conducted an ethnographic study in the editorial offices of Pauw and Jinek. The programmes each have their own individual format, which determines camera angles, production, the tone of the discussions, the atmosphere during the show and the choice of items. Schohaus: ‘The composition of these elements differs per format. It is the specific combination of elements that makes each programme unique. This is their success formula. Programmes are careful to safeguard their format so that their target audience will continue watching.’
Target audiences do not necessarily run into millions. Buitenhof is specifically aimed at highly educated viewers, DWDD focuses on a younger audience and RTL Late Night wants to attract viewers of between 25 and 45. And yet most programmes strive for good viewing figures. ‘They have to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This is often measured in terms of viewing figures, but it’s not necessarily the same thing,’ says Schohaus. ‘Not all shows invite the same political guests because, depending on the format, they try to strike a balance between maximum political relevance and the talkability of the guests. Guests’ comments must be newsworthy but they should be ‘entertaining’ too. The first factor is more important to a programme like Buitenhof, whereas RTL Late Night sets greater store by the second.’
Certain guests tend to appear on air more frequently because editors would obviously rather have a party leader with clout on their show than a backbencher relaying the same story. The same applies to the various experts who join in to discuss various political topics. Unknown guests represent a risk that programme makers are unwilling to take. Schohaus: ‘They could make more use of opportunities to generate an unexpected, personal and innovative discussion about politics, but to do this, programmes would have to allow more room for experimenting.’
Talk shows are often criticized for not featuring the views of ‘the man in the street’. Schohaus strongly disagrees: ‘If you analyse the programmes, you see that many of the shows invite ordinary people with a particular experience to come and talk about a specific issue relating to healthcare, for example, or education.’
Birte Schohaus (Aurich, 1983) studied Art, Culture & Media and Journalism at the University of Groningen. She conducted her research at the Centre for Media and Journalism Studies at the University of Groningen. She also works as a freelance journalist for various media (online and in print).
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