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.
Managing director: Ed Hall
Number viewers: unavailable
’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.’
Editor: Mark Killick
Number viewers: 5 million
’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
’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
WE CAN WORK THIS OUT
Executive producer: Helen Scott
Number viewers: 4.8 million
’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
’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
Editor: Peter Horrocks
Number viewers: 3 million
’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
’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.’