The consumer journalism genre is a weird hybrid of camp, post-modern irony and quasi-legal case-studies. That's Life set the template and it has survived almost unchanged- and Watchdog's latest iteration breaks no new ground. Tortuous links to pop culture, bad puns, chummy presenters? Check. Disatisfied customers filmed in their own homes recounting their experiences at great length? Check. Attempt to use the BBC's authority to force a response from the company? Check.
Not that this makes it bad, necessarily. But certainly stretched over an hour it seemed, well, stretched, jumping from story to story, delaying resolution of the individual strands as if forever fearful that once we'd seen the auctioneers emabnarssed we'd switch channel. The lame humour is an overlay to conceal the fundamentally dull subject matter of customers not getting quite what they wanted.
But there are problems with this format. Companies are media savvy. They know that giving an interview is risky and a prepared statement is not, so there are few Frost/Nixon moments when the Midland Widgets spokesperson admits red-faced to extracting salt from the tears of orphans for use in the staff canteen.
Equally, the days when consumer were powerless innocents at the mercy of big corporations have gone. Anyone can email the company, chatter in forums, set up a 'sucks' website, stalk wikipedia. In many cases the 'victim' is shown to have actually entered willingly into a contract which they now find uncongenial - and to expect the law to support them in their wish to escape is to undermine the entire principle of commerce. And of course there was a time when 'real people' would be invisible on screen - so That's Life tapped into the seam that later grew into docusoap and reality TV - unmediated (or apparently unmediated) platforms for the excluded eccentrics, gurners, talking dogs and all-round characters. People Like Us are now only kept off screen because they're boring or mad.
Consumers have rights. The 'name and shame on TV' route is not, as it effectively once was, the only recourse for those without legal backing - now it is a bizarre nuclear option that may or may not actually improve things.
There is no space in the gladiatorial arena for nuance - epitomised last night at the end of an item of supermarket pricing (supermarkets change their prices, you know, not always downwards) - the supermarket explained that 'the cost of some items had been affected by changes in the £/euro exchange rate'. Rather than check to see whether this was a fair point, Anne Robinson (who was a career journalist until a decade ago) sneered and said 'whatever that means!' and the other journalist shrugged. Yes, because how could TWO JOURNALISTS working on a BBC FACTUAL PROGRAMME cope with a concept so arcane that everybody who has ever been abroad would have encountered? And even if it were obscure, perhaps it would have been interesting and actually, you know, helpful, to explore the issue, talk to an expert, leave the viewers a little better informed, rather than just basking in the rosy glow of comnfort having seen the BBC tell off those naughty capitalists.
It is possible that this genre has run its course - improved consumer protection and greater knowledge have removed the need for media champions. Here's hoping.