How to Become a TV Pundit
By Aaron Broverman
With so much of TV news driven by opinion and commentary these days, one of the world’s holy grails for brand exposure and publicity is becoming a TV pundit – making recurring appearances on cable news networks like CNN and Fox News to share your opinion on the issues of the day.
From a distance, it may seem like quite a high bar to hurdle, but Jess Todtfeld knows what it takes. As the president and founder of Success in Media, he relies on over 15 years of experience as a media trainer and consultant to train corporate clients like IBM, AARP and Land Rover on how to handle the media onslaught.
Perhaps best known for his appearance on The Daily Show in a segment called “Pundit School,” his true experience booking pundits comes from his 13 years of experience producing over 4,000 segments for cable news, with ten of those years being spent at Fox News where he booked guests for The O’Reilly Factor and Fox & Friends.
If you want to become a TV pundit, here’s what he says you need to do:
Have Social Proof
The number-one thing you need to have as an expert on television is social proof. Without that, producers are likely to skip right over you.
“Certainly having a book out is the biggest piece of social proof. It shows that the person knows what they’re talking about,” says Todtfeld.
Of course, a book isn’t the only form of social proof a producer will take seriously. Appearing on other shows, being quoted in print and giving keynote speeches across the country can all increase someone’s chances of being booked, but all of these examples need to be viewable or readable on the web.
“As a producer, I’d want to find a guest who is the best match for the story. Then, I’d be looking for the social proof that tells us this person is, in fact, an expert,” he continues.
“Usually producers find someone who has been out there in other ways – and TV feeds off other media. So if someone was quoted in an article and we liked what they said, there’s an extra chance they’d be called by the network.”
Have a Strong Point of View
Stories in which pundits are booked rely on different points of view – ideally representing both sides of the story – so if you want to be a pundit, a strong opinion is required.
“If somebody’s wishy-washy on how they feel on a certain topic, they don’t make a great guest. But if somebody stands behind their words and speaks in absolutes, they’re more likely to be booked.”
But to be a pure pundit – someone who wants to be on TV news over and over and wants to have a definitive voice in the conversation on their topic or political position – you must be “Good TV” or “Good Radio.” Only then will you be asked back over and over again.
Be “Good TV”
So what is “Good TV”? One word: Conflict.
“That is the whole idea behind two people with two differing points of view – to be put in a room and be argumentative or upset about something,” says Todtfeld.
Forget that this is what’s driving news now and save your breath if you care whether this fact is good or bad, because if you want to be a pundit, you’re all about fitting into the current mold.
“If they go on, they have a point of view, they’re kind of interesting – ideally, they’re more than kind of interesting – and they have something different to add to the conversation. Then, they can start getting asked back over and over,” adds Todtfeld.
So, what is that something different? It can be a slightly different take on an issue or it can be the fact that you’re good looking.
“You can look pretty and not have a point of view, but you also have to have something to say. Of course, if you say something ridiculous, the network probably won’t ask you back, but that’s debatable because there are always people who come in and you go, ‘Really? That guy again?’”
Regardless, hopefully you get added to the rotation, which is what every aspiring pundit lives for.
Get Added to the Rotation
The rotation is a pundit’s sweet spot because it can open him or her up to a myriad of money-making possibilities.
“Some people become a pundit so they can have a circle in their career going on,” says Todtfeld.”They want to be on often so they can get a book deal, promote the book during their appearances, and then hopefully parlay that into a radio- or TV-hosting gig of their own,” says Todfeldt.
Of course, being asked back repeatedly is very subjective. It’s as simple as the people running the show liking your energy, liking your point of view, liking that you had different things to say and liking that you weren’t long-winded and spoke in sound bites within the context of what you were saying.”
It’s all purely based on their opinion, but Todfeldt says there are some simple things you can still do to go from occasional guest to a regular slot in the rotation.
“Not only should you sound interesting, but you also have to be conscious of packing a lot into a small amount of time. Also, you need to be flexible. We used pundits often purely because we knew they could be available at the drop of a hat and we’d want to reward that person because they saved us when we had nobody.”
But beware, the pundit rotation is generally four to six people, which makes it hard for new people to break in.
“The sweet spot is when the TV network is getting a little bit of what they want, the audience is getting what they want and you’re getting what you want,” says Todfeldt.