Members of the ABC’s Chaser team have teamed up with experts from CHOICE for a new 10-part ABC consumer affairs series, The Checkout, which begins this week. How can a TV show help Australians get a better deal while also making jokes? We caught up with presenter and executive producer Julian Morrow to find out.
LIFEHACKER: At the moment, consumer affairs TV in Australia is dominated by A Current Affair and Today Tonight. That’s a fairly low barrier to be beating, but how do you think you can improve on that kind of coverage?
JULIAN MORROW: Our mission has always been to drive down the standards of the Australian media, so it’s a particular challenge to try and take on Today Tonight and A Current Affair on something they’re already doing fairly poorly and do it even worse. On a more serious note, the consumer affairs coverage on ACA and TT is arguably some of their better stuff, and I don’t see us as trying to take viewers away from them. We’re just trying to make the same point in a different way, and arguably there’s not a huge overlap between the ABC audience and the ACA/TT audience anyway.
LH: Is there a general lack of awareness of consumer issues in Australia and a knowledge gap that needs to be addressed?
JM: I think so. I reckon there’s a lot of urban myths that persist that just aren’t grounded in reality. One of the things we’ve been surprised by in researching this show is just how strong consumer’s rights are in a lot of areas. It’s not that they don’t have rights, it’s that they’re not being enforced. In a way, this is like nationally televised business training.
LH: What’s the worst example of bad practice that has stuck in your head?
JM: Almost every company, in my view, deliberately tries to make consumers not aware of their rights under consumer law. The consumer law basically says that you can return a product if it’s not of acceptable quality, and that includes durability. So that might mean that a product that you bought five years ago, you should be able to not only return it but get the company to pay to pick it up. Basically anyone who flogs an extended warranty I think is taking advantage of consumer lack of awareness. I think that a lot of the time people are paying for rights that under consumer law they should have for free.
LH: Can humour and consumer awareness work together successfully?
JM: One of the challenges I’ve set for myself and we’ve talked about with the other guys in preparing this show is it’s kind of about trying to create ways of encapsulating an issue so that it occurs to people the next time they have an issue. Comedy can be a good way to do that. Tell a funny scenario. People remember jokes, they talk about them.
LH: Do Facebook and Twitter make people better consumers or does it just make them whinier?
JM: I think it certainly lit up a part of the consumer-verse in terms of making your dissatisfaction known. I’m not sure that it’s added to the dissatisfaction, I just think it has created a quicker outlet for it and in many ways that’s great.
The old cliché that the customer is always right is clearly wrong. There are some unreasonable customers out there but there are plenty of unreasonable and unfair companies as well, and social media has made it a lot easier for some complaints to go viral quickly — Vodafail is the classic example in Australia, and I think world’s best practice would be Dave Carroll, the Canadian musician who did United Breaks Guitars, and he’s going to be on the show.
As a virtuous circle of new media and old media influence, we’re encouraging people to put videos online that set out their consumer complaints. We call the segment FU Tube and we’re going to be looking at all that material and if there are complaints that we think resonate, we’ll air those or speak to the people who made them in the show in the hope that the medium of television might kick those complaints on a little bit.
LH: Another segment that sounds promising is Product vs Packshot, where you compare how stuff looks on the packaging with the actual contents. We’ve done a bit of that around here with Takeaway Truth; what categories have you picked in?
JM: It’s a very competitive field, it’s fair to say. I don’t think I’ll be giving away too much by saying that episode 1 is going to feature a Coles home brand. Tinned fruit and vegetables seem to be particularly poor in this area. Some of the brands have the good grace not to show a picture of the outside, which is a fair play admission of what it looks like on the inside. You come away when you look at the can with the impression that you might be about to take a delightful stroll through a farm field or a forest, and when you open it up it looks like one of the outer rings of hell. They’re the sorts of products we’re going to be featuring. There’s canned fruit and veg, a few frozen meals, I think Heinz spaghetti gets a gong. Again, that’s an area where we’re hoping people will be taking photos of how their meals and products look and sending them in.
LH: Have you managed to persuade the queen of TV consumer journalism Helen Wellings to do a cameo?
JM: Not yet. I think after what we said about her in the press release we probably scotched our chances of that. (The announcement release included this line: “The Checkout will turn consumer TV on its head, with a no-holds-barred, irreverent and entertaining approach to the subject that would have Helen Wellings turning in her grave, if she wasn’t still alive.”.)
I’ve got a huge regard for Helen; she really did pioneer this kind of television. I’m not sure that the sort of consumer affairs show that Craig and I are going to make will quite be the same as the way Helen will do it, but if we can get her in a cameo I think The Checkout will be all the stronger for it.
LH: Consumer affairs is a big field and you’re only doing 10 episodes. Was there a temptation to make this a year-round thing?
JM: There’s certainly no lack of issues to tackle. At the moment we’re just trying to make sure we can make one episode, then we’ll tackle ten. We certainly feel at this stage that there’s room for more.
LH: Can you emulate your stablemates at the Gruen Transfer/Planet/Nation/Sweat and start spinning the show off into other related brands?
JM: I think there have been so many Gruen variants we might need to do an episode on the consumer psychology of the Gruen brand and how confusing and diversified it is. I don’t think we’d spin it off into different areas, but it’s possible we’d do themed episodes around particular products or categories or industries.
I see The Checkout as a consumer affairs tasting plate for new viewers, so what we’re trying to do is profile some of the big issues and encapsulate some of the questions in a way that is engaging and entertaining. If people want to drill down into the details there are probably better places to do that than watching TV on a Thursday night!
The Checkout begins on ABC1 at 8pm Thursday 21 March.