Sebastian does a successful hard-sell for BBC World

MUMBAI: Brilliant. As innovative promotional campaigns go, this will certainly take some beating. Last night saw the last act of a three city-tour of the country organised by BBC World to promote the channel to the trade and media. Tim Sebastian, the award-winning presenter of interview programme HARDTalk, "In Conversation With" first time interviewer Reliance Industries' Anil Ambani.

The road show had its grand finale at south Mumbai's Oberoi hotel, after earlier sessions, first in Bangalore with Frontline editor N Ram and in Delhi with Asian Age editor MJ Akbar.

The choice of interviewer, vice-chairman and MD of India's only Fortune 500 private sector company, was quite apt for India's commercial capital though the purists probably cringed at the idea. It was BBC's Sanjeev Srivastav who managed that part of it.

Coming to the event itself, the "conversation" was interesting and had just enough aggro, light banter and seriousness to keep the audience involved. The flow from light repartee to serious talk and back to light banter was well managed. Sebastian, a veteran of the interview routine with 1,500 behind him (he conducts 235 interviews a year) handled the questions both the tough and the light with aplomb.

For a first time effort, Ambani's performance was also pretty commendable. With two days of preparation, and at the outset confessing that he'd never seen HARDTalk, much thought obviously went into the question flow. Whoever scripted the question list did a good job of it and though there could be some carping about how Ambani did a bit of overkill as far as the hardball question routine went, it was a good showing all in all.

The interview had its moments. Among them:

"Hair doesn't grow in busy places." Sebastian's rejoinder when Ambani made a reference to his bald pate.

Ambani brought up Amitabh Bachchan having been paid $75,000 per episode of Kaun Banega Crorepati (if the Reliance scion was serious, this is the first "unofficial" confirmation as to the Big B's pay packet for KBC). When asked about his take home Sebastian said, "If you're looking to buy me, I can't be bought. But for God sake's try."

"Politics is a performing art." Sebastian's observation that the politicians of today were well versed in how to handle media.

An interview he did with former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh. "Twenty-four minutes (the length of his interviews) that yielded absolutely nothing by way of insights."

Some advice from Sebastian to wannabe interviewers: The biggest secret is listening. "It is also in the preparation, the more you put into the interview, the more you get out of it." Describing his job as an interviewer, Sebastian says: "I measure reality against rhetoric the whole time. My job is to get new answers from old issues, find out why my subjects (those he interviews) haven't done as much as they should."

As one media buyer put it, the road shows were an excellent way to send across the message that for the BBC, India is way up there on its priority list.

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