This article first appeared on Malta Today
This week, Herman Grech from Times Talk interviewed Peppi Azzopardi, the creator and presenter of Malta’s longest running talk show, Xarabank.
For 20 years it has been the “must see” TV programme on Friday nights. Year after year it comes in first as the most watched show on Maltese TV, by those who actually watch local fare. Even if you don’t watch it, as so many don’t (or claim not to), you can still know what the topic was because FB is literally covered with references to it on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. In fact, for a programme which so many claim that they resolutely shun, it is amazing that it is always on everyone’s lips.
And, of course, that is precisely why it is still on the air after 20 years. The advertising is there because the viewer ratings are there, and even if you watch it simply in order to slash it to pieces the next day, you are still watching it. Come Monday mornings, it is what is known as a ‘water cooler show’, i.e. the programme that office workers everywhere are discussing around the water cooler at work as they greet each other with the well-known greeting, “rajtu Xarabank?” (did you watch Xarabank?)
As he discussed with Peppi the reason for the programme’s continued popularity, Herman Grech asked all the right questions, while also bringing up the criticisms which are often levelled at the show: its often chaotic structure as guests yell at each other while the audience joins in, the fact that the opinion of uninformed people is given as much weight as that of experts, and the tendency to ‘dumb down’ a subject in order to make it easily digestible for viewers. Peppi came back with pretty convincing answers to each one of these; answers we have all heard before because he has been defending the ethos of his creation for a long time. “TV is for communicating and if you are not reaching your audience and making them want to watch you, you are failing” is how he basically sums it up.
Again, I can see his point. For a long time, it really was communicating well and was very watchable television. But where Xarabank started sliding towards dubious territory in my view is when it kept trying to out-do itself with the type of colourful characters it had as guests. The more outrageous the guest, or the more bizarrre his or her viewpoints, the more people talked about it. Sensationalism draws in the viewers and it became pretty clear that the louder and more vocal you were, the more chance you had to be given the spotlight. It is the equivalent of a website which lures in readers through lurid headlines, using ‘click bait’ stories. Once you click on the story, you’ve been hooked, like an unsuspecting fish.
Is there anything really wrong with that, one might ask? Well, on the face of it, no. Television should cater for everyone and if there are viewers who enjoy that kind of thing, they certainly have been well-served because Friday nights never fail to disappoint (although I do wonder how long one can keep pushing the envelope to keep grabbing the public’s attention). There is also another aspect to this paradox: because it is the most watched programme, it is also the one which most people automatically want to go on to make sure their voice is heard. In fact, during Times Talk, the example of Mark Camilleri was mentioned. He had become infamous for publishing a racy short story with crude words in a University magazine and was facing a prison sentence for distributing obscenity. Recently, he openly criticized the show and claimed it should be pulled off the air, and yet as Peppi pointed out, at the height of the controversy over censorship, Mr Camilleri had chosen to come on Xarabank to defend his decision to publish the story.
This is also the reason that (most) politicians have realized that they cannot afford to turn up their nose at Xarabank – the chance to reach such a wide public is just too irresistible
However, with so much broadcasting clout, there also comes great responsibility. I believe that because they have such a large audience in the palm of their hands, the Xarabank producers need to re-evaluate the messages they are sending through the tone and style of the programme. The dumbing down part is especially worrying because it has a ripple effect on our culture and society at large. I am sure there are ways to “explain” a complicated subject without speaking to the audience watching as if they were imbeciles. Even those who are not ‘educated’ in the academic sense, are not as stupid as some would have us believe. And while yes, there is ignorance here as in any other country, pandering to it is not going to improve matters at all, but will only make it worse. I am also sure that a decent discussion can be had without bellowing your lungs out in a shouting match.
And while this may not go down to well, I really think Peppi himself should seriously consider handing over the reins to someone else. The times I have tuned in, he always seems to be on edge, disheveled, unable to contain himself as he waits for his guests to express themselves, almost physically wanting to pull out the words from their throat with his gesticulating hands. HIs nerves seem to be stretched and are almost at a breaking point (or at least that is how it appears to me), and while I can understand that it is always a race against time on such a live show, the fact that a presenter is not relaxed just creates unnecessary agitation. This agitation is often transmitted to the guests themselves, because getting your point across in two minutes flat is not easy. He is a firm believer in keeping things brief (his habit of saying “fil-qosor” quickly became a catchphrase) but sometimes brevity comes at the expense of quality. Trying to ram too many things in a single programme (because he believes that viewers do not have long attention spans and are quickly bored), the end result is sometimes a hotch potch of topics where you can hardly get your teeth into a discussion before it is swiped from under your feet and they have moved on to something else.
With so many international TV series available on demand these days and with more and more people not even bothering with Maltese TV at all, it is no mean feat that Xarabank has still managed to pull in the audiences (even if it is the one show everyone loves to hate). A live talk show about current issues which discusses the national topics important to the public at any given time is crucial for any society. But the way it handles those topics and whether you leave the show feeling uplifted or dejected by the quality of the discourse, is something which is completely in the hands of the producers. And as a show which is transmitted on our national station, Xarabank has an obligation to strive to be the best it can be.