Different television programs approach their production differently, but almost all who follow an interview format include as part of their planning the pre-interview. This is where a producer, not the host, calls the future guest on the show to go over a range of topics that could be touched on in the actual televised interview.
If you’re going to be a guest on a television show, you should expect the producer to reach out to you in advance to spend a few minutes by telephone for this purpose. He or she will likely tell you that the reason for the call is to find out what you want to talk about, get a little background on possible discussion topics, and help frame the line of questioning.
That way the producer can brief the host on what you’re prepared to talk about, lay out a list of good questions, and in the end structure an interview that attracts and retains as large an audience as possible.
It’s never a good idea to enter a pre-interview under the notion that you will have the opportunity to influence the direction of the actual interview. While it’s not uncommon to lay out your desired terms, and even identify some topics you want to talk about and those topics you don’t want to touch. But that provides no guarantee that the subject won’t come up when the red light goes on above the studio camera.
It depends on the nature of the program. Some hosts thrive on controversy. Others are known to be very guest-friendly. Before you agree to do any interview, it’s critical to do your research and see what kind of approach the interviewer has taken in the past.
Stephen Colbert has conducted some of the most classic ambush interviews, particularly when he was on the Daily Show team. In many instances, it was obvious the interviewee had no idea that they were being interviewed by a comedian whose primary goal was to make their surprise the point of the joke.
I don’t know what Mr. Colbert has done in the area of pre-interviews, but one thing that seems obvious is that guests were not warned of Mr. Colbert’s approach.
For some hosts, and these are worst-case scenarios, the pre-interview is used to identify those topics you don’t want to talk about and even learn more about why you want to avoid them. That helps the producers, writers and hosts better fine-tune an approach to pull you into that topic.
Ambush interviewers thrive as much on your reaction to their questions as the nature of the questions and responses themselves.
With this in mind, next time you agree to do a television interview, make sure to do your homework on the show and the host, and above all, don’t go into the pre-interview assuming it’s designed to meet your needs and comfort level.