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Caring big sister vs nagging aunt

ITV's `We Can Work it Out' will wear kid gloves to wage war against the BBC's snappy `Watchdog'. Who's got it right?
Once there was a time when the great British public would suffer all manner of inconveniences in stoic silence. Not today. The Nineties have seen the rise of consumer power.

Not only are we more willing to complain, but it makes popular telly, too. Witness the rise of BBC1's Watchdog, a show that has become a brand of tabloid consumerism in its own right.

As if further proof were needed, ITV wants in on the action, too. We Can Work it Out was launched on ITV last Thursday. The live show is fronted by day-time TV treasure Judy Finnigan who, with her team of reporters, sets out to expose injustices and deceptions in the high street. Filmed items are mixed with studio discussion, and viewers can phone in.

The format may sound familiar but the approach is not, the producers insist. Judy is the viewers' champion, you see - caring big sister to Anne Robinson's nagging aunt. Her mission? To show the upside as well as the downside of being a consumer.

"It's broad-brush consumer journalism with a light touch - not aggressive or hectoring," explains Helen Scott, the show's executive producer. "Yes, there will be targets and we will name the guilty, where appropriate. But Judy's is altogether a softer, warmer style. She's quieter and more human - viewers will really be able to identify with her firm grip on how to get a fair deal."

The programme has been championed by ex-Watchdog editor Steve Anderson, who joined ITV Network Centre as controller of news and current affairs last year.

Of course, ITV has covered consumer issues already - such as on This Morning, and in current-affairs strands such as World in Action, Big Story and 3D - he says, but until now the network has given BBC1 a "free run".

"Public attention has shifted on to consumer issues in the late-Nineties as the big political questions that previously preoccupied them have been settled," he says. "Having worked on Watchdog I know just how many stories are out there - there's certainly room for two programmes covering similar ground."

ITV's focus, however, will be on the practical - perhaps a response to criticism that Watchdog has received from some for its frequent demands for ritual humiliation or total climb-down.

"Our focus is more practical," Anderson admits. "We want to provide consumer information in a way which is a different approach to consumer problems. Watchdog is more confrontational and seeks answers quickly."

It was not always so. Until Anne Robinson took over as presenter in 1992, Watchdog was presented by the earnest pairing of John Stapleton and Lynne Faulds Wood. "It was a programme you wouldn't want to admit you worked on," says one of the show's present co- presenters. "When Rory Bremner dons a yellow hard hat, stands in a field, adopts a funny accent and warns branches of a tree could poke your eye out, you know you're in trouble."

Robinson, however, gave the series teeth. "Anne brought a style which was brasher, more cutting and slightly tongue in cheek," says Helen O'Rahilly, editor of Watchdog and Weekend Watchdog. "Her arrival marked a shift in approach, too. We started going for bigger, well-known companies rather than the con man in the lock-up garage round the corner."

And the ratings doubled - to 7.4 million. Watchdog regularly takes between 32 and 34 per cent of audience share in its early evening, week-night slot. And BBC executives loved it so much they spun-off a whole family of Watchdog-branded shows, including Watchdog Healthcheck, Value for Money, Face Value, On the House and The Big Dinner, hosted by Maitland, which is launched next week.

"There's limitless potential for these programmes to get fantastic ratings and continue to do so," believes the series' editor, Owen Gay. "We're now dealing with big companies, and big companies who constantly capitulate before a programme even goes on air."

The Watchdog "unit" now comprises a team of 80, and also produces programmes for BBC2, such as Computers Don't Bite and a new parenting show. Maitland says: "Watchdog has become a byword for popular tabloid consumer journalism. The BBC loves it because it has a fantastic audience and it's a public service."

Not everyone shares their enthusiasm for the genre. A growing number of companies are complaining about how they have been treated. Some criticise consumer shows' research methods, others their format, which invariably relies on short, sharp items that can be quickly understood and dramatically resolved.

In 1996/7, Watchdog attracted more justified complaints to the BBC's in-house complaints unit than any other show. Although the figure fell in 1997/8, complaints are regularly made to the Broadcasting Standards Council, which last month upheld in part a complaint by Ford about the series' treatment of its pricing policy and steering problems in some Mondeos. Earlier this month, Airtours sent a dossier to the BSC alleging that Watchdog "smeared" one of its hotels.

"People don't only want alarmist subjects, they do want reassurance," observes Pat Roberts Cairns, editor-in-chief of Good Housekeeping. "The main thing is to get a balanced viewpoint. Other media, perhaps, are better for this."

Helen Parker, editor of Which?, says: "Watchdog has real power, but is only one part of the equation - people need a range of information and advice. They can at times be constrained by the [programme's] format and [story] brevity."

Anderson counters such criticism. "When Watchdog takes on a big company it is always thoroughly researched. The stakes are high, and the production team is brilliant. Our approach will be no different." And he rejects mischievous suggestions that ITV's "softer" approach is to keep the commercial network's advertisers sweet.

Only time will tell if We Can Work it Out will cut the mustard. Meanwhile, one thing's for sure: there's more to come. Following last month's decision by the Independent Television Commission to allow magazine-branded programmes on to terrestrial TV, Good Housekeeping - which already has its own satellite TV show on GSkyB - is reviewing its options. There will only be one way to be as we enter the millennium, it seems. In the words of Anne Robinson: "Be awkward. Complain. Make a fuss." And better still, do it on live TV in front of an audience of millions.