MEDIA CONSUMER AFFAIRS: Giving the public a voice to complain - With the sharp rise in vehicles through which to shop - on the high street, over the net, and from the TV - consumer affairs programmes are essential viewing to those who want real value for

It may be a sense of fin de siecle or it may be just a cycle in the world of broadcasting, but all our factual programmes are undergoing sweeping changes at the moment.

It may be a sense of fin de siecle or it may be just a cycle in the

world of broadcasting, but all our factual programmes are undergoing

sweeping changes at the moment.



Panorama editor Peter Horrocks opened the latest series of the show with

the declaration that it was to cover ’more emotional’ stories. The BBC’s

science strand QED is changing its name to Living Proof and

concentrating on human interest science. At the same time, the BBC’s

flagship consumer show Watchdog has recruited Mark Killick, a senior

researcher on Panorama, to edit both Watchdog and Weekend Watchdog.



Some observers have argued that this is simply blurring the lines

between current affairs and consumer affairs and claim that all

reporting is consumer reporting these days.



That’s a claim Horrocks denies. ’The phrase ’more emotional’ refers to

the way we pull people in to a story by acknowledging its emotional

pull,’ he explains. ’We’ve covered adoption and private healthcare and

those stories obviously have an emotional pull since they have serious

implications for people’s lives.



’They are consumer stories in one sense, but we are still an

investigative, rather than a consumer show.’



And whatever the critics grumbles, the power of the consumer show is

growing. At the beginning of the 1990s, consumer affairs programmes were

the laughing stock of the telly world.



Watchdog entered the 1990s as a low-rating, eraly evening Monday

programme dealing with Arthur Daley car dealers. When Anne Robinson took

over as presenter in late 1992, she brought a stronger, tabloid

approach, dealing with customer care and the big companies. Ratings

doubled almost overnight.



Now the show rates between 4.5 million to six million viewers for its

prime-time Thursday and Friday night programmes and has spawned a number

of spin off shows, including Health Check, and Value For Money.



Meanwhile, in the on-line world, the traditional consumer affairs

programmes are seen as something of an easy target. Former Radio Five

Live presenter Ed Hall has set up an interactive financial consumer

channel called Simply Money. The service will exist as both a web site

and an interactive television channel whereby viewers will be able to

switch into updated features on money-related decisions like healthcare,

travel, mortgages, pensions and motoring.



SIMPLY MONEY



Managing director: Ed Hall



Number viewers: unavailable



Channel: Internet/cable



Frequency: daily



’We’re pitched somewhere between Watchdog and Richard and Judy. At the

moment, we’re just a web site, simplymoney.net, but we have a newsroom

of 12 people and will shortly be launching as streamed TV from the site

through cable and satellite. When we start broadcasting live, we’re

going to have three hours of programming between 7am and 10am.



’Our research of all demographics, from 50-plus men to teenage girls,

shows 35 per cent of them want more financial information. Obviously

they don’t all want the same type of information, which is why our

programming is going to be tightly streamed, which is when we will need

PR - to tell us what is out there.’



WATCHDOG



Editor: Mark Killick



Number viewers: 5 million



Channel: BBC1



Frequency: weekly



’Since taking over, I have made two big changes. The first is that we

have broadened out our remit from pure consumer affairs to take on areas

like health authorities, education and public utilities. The second is

that we are becoming tougher. When I arrived, confidence was dented by

last year’s pressure from BT, Dixons, the AA, Hotpoint and Procter and

Gamble.



’So we have increased the on-screen time we give companies. I have been

to crisis management PR companies and told them we’ll contact them early

on, explain what we think they’ve done and why we think they’ve done it,

allow them to see our film and then comment. I think they appreciate

that.’



WE CAN WORK THIS OUT



Executive producer: Helen Scott



Number viewers: 4.8 million



Channel: ITV



Frequency: weekly



’We get thousands of letters, calls and e-mails every week to follow up

and we have a team of journalists who run investigations and

campaigns.



’I think consumer journalism is an increasing part of the current

affairs mix because if you define current affairs as stories that

matter, people do think that having a car serviced and it coming back

worse than before matters.



’Some companies have learned an apology works and that it’s good to send

a representative not just a statement. British Airways, for instance,

had messed up a couple’s honeymoon, so they sent someone down with two

tickets for anywhere in the world. You just can’t buy publicity like

that.’



PANORAMA



Editor: Peter Horrocks



Number viewers: 3 million



Channel: BBC1



Frequency: weekly



’We are covering more consumer stories in that we have looked at the

banking industry recently, but we are not going to go after the

small-scale rip-off merchants.



’When we covered banking, we looked at the way customers were having

their accounts closed for them. That’s a big story and it is worthy of a

real investigation.



’What you find when you ring up a PR company is that the word Panorama

tends to make them drop the phone and get the boss. It can put sensible

PR people into a tailspin when we’re just trying to get access to

companies and people. On the other hand, if our reputation puts the wind

up them, I won’t lose too much sleep over it.’



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