Marketplace ends a stellar season this Friday, having averaged 1.2 million viewers on Friday nights, a 31% increase over last year, and hitting a nerve with stories on hospital infections and expensive eyeglasses, among others. Hosts Erica Johnson and Tom Harrington answered some questions for TV, eh? about the show and its influence, some of their favourite segments, and how we can make smarter consumer choices.
How does a show come together? Tell us a bit about the team behind the hosts.
ERICA: Marketplace is definitely a strong “team” show. Tom and I are who the public sees (and gets to know), but we’re strongly supported by tenacious researchers, creative producers, associate producers, editors and cameramen. We have regular story meetings where we toss around program ideas – what’s on people’s minds, what stories do we think need telling, and – given that our show airs Friday night – what will people find interesting in that timeslot. We also get a lot of ideas from viewers, and often include them in our stories. Because people know that our show advocates on their behalf, our viewers are really engaged – they tell us what they like, and what they don’t like – and all of it’s good to hear (though the good stuff is better!).
TOM: We work on many of our stories for months, most of them for weeks. Our producers and researchers do a great deal of the heavy research though Erica and I chip in when called upon. In my brief time on Marketplace, I’m continually impressed by what we uncover and by the creative vision of our producers who have such terrific ideas on how to present the material. Add to that the editors and videographers who deliver the look and feel. We tell great stories that are also great looking stories.
What was your favourite Marketplace story to do and why? Which do you think was the most important?
ERICA: That’s a hard question to answer after ten years of hosting! A few seasons back, Marketplace travelled to Budapest, Hungary to interview a cross-dressing inventor who claimed his miracle device could cure cancer. That was a great story to work on for a number of reasons – it featured a colourful central character, to be sure, but was also a story that was having a profound impact on people who believed his spiel, paid thousands for his device, and put their health at risk. I’ll never forget the inventor pointing to a gun (we think it was fake) at the start of the interview and saying, “I hope I don’t have to use that.” After our story aired, Health Canada pulled the license for the “miracle device” so it can’t be sold here anymore.
In terms of which story was the most important … that’s also difficult to answer. A lot of the stories we do have an impact on people’s lives — and when we’re lucky, they change corporate and public policy. Just last week we aired “Dirty Hospitals” and I would say that’s one of my favourites. The piece is about the number of people in Canada who go to hospital and pick up a potentially deadly superbug. It’s unbelievable to me that more than 12,000 people can die from a hospital acquired infection in Canada — more per capita than any other developed country. And because a good friend became very sick from MRSA she got in the hospital, and another friend’s mother died from c. difficile she got in the hospital, this story meant a lot to me. We tested hospital cleaning in BC and Ontario, and each hospital got a failing grade. My hope is that hospital administrators sit up and finally do what’s needed to stem the tide of people dying needlessly from hospital acquired infections.
TOM: It’s hard to pick a favourite and it’s been only two seasons for me but I did enjoy our story on one of Canada’s biggest residential landlords called “Trouble For Rent.” It was a classic example of Marketplace defending the powerless, tenants living in squalid conditions and unable to effect change. But our intervention help improve the situation for some and brought public attention on the company’s way of doing business across Canada. I think in terms of importance, the story on the cost of glasses (“Framed”) had a high impact. We received huge ratings, tons of viewer reaction and even support from within the eyeglass industry. It’s an issue that meant more to Canadians than we realized.
What kinds of positive regulatory or other changes have you seen result from the show?
ERICA: We know that officials in Ontario’s Ministry of Health watched “Dirty Hospitals” and that night told the union representing hospital cleaners that hospitals in the Niagara Region (where there’ve been numerous c. difficile outbreaks) will end their relationship with a private cleaning company. Frontline workers had complained about the private company cutting staff and using cheaper cleaning products than necessary during outbreaks. Another story, “Dirty Doctors,” documented doctors not washing their hands as they moved from contagious patient to patient. That story is now played in several medical schools as a teaching tool, and used by hospitals across the country.
We’ve had Health Canada pull the license on shady medical devices (like the “cancer-curing” device, mentioned above), we’ve had companies change misleading labels (as Maple Leaf did last month after we revealed they weren’t being forthright about nitrites in their deli meat), and we’ve seen municipalities ban toxic lawn fertilizers because of our work. Marketplace is a hugely gratifying show to work on, and both Tom and I feel lucky to be involved in a program that still sticks up for the little guy.
TOM: In the glasses story, viewers told us that BC opticians were charging $50 for a particular measurement which was supposed to be free there. A follow up story revealed what they were doing and the rules were enforced. In the apartment story, the company replaced the roof on the building where one of our victims lived. The company’s stock dropped in value for several days after our report.
How do you deal with negative reaction from those featured on the program, or viewers who object to your conclusions?
ERICA: I don’t get too upset if someone we’ve asked hard questions of, doesn’t like it. Because our research is so solid, charges we put to someone are rooted in fact. Doing investigative journalism doesn’t always make you popular with the bad guys, but it sure builds strong public support (and on days a company is threatening to sue us – we really appreciate that support!). We get emails and phone calls daily from people who believe in what we do, and that’s really gratifying. We also hear from viewers who don’t agree with our conclusions, and that’s to be expected. Our hope is that viewers see that we’re doing our best to tell an accurate story, and expose wrong-doing. Some viewers want us to tell more “good news” stories – but so little investigative journalism exists these days (it’s costly, time-consuming) that we’re pretty protective of our brand.
TOM: You soon understand that doing this kind of journalism will anger those we focus on and we can’t please everyone. But the show has incredible and overwhelming popular support. So many Canadians e-mail every day because they tell us they believe in what we do and hope we can help them. That’s why so many of our story ideas come from viewers. What in find interesting is that many businesses are becoming more aggressive and creative in their responses to our reports which could be a story in itself.
Sometimes it seems like we need a PhD in consumerism to make smart choices – besides watching Marketplace, based on your research do you have tips on what consumers can do to make informed choices without being overwhelmed?
ERICA: I think most people know how to make good, informed consumer choices – it’s just surprising that so often we don’t use the knowledge we have! Can’t say enough “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is” – that’s a good way to get burned. Do your research before you sign up for (insert here: a gym membership, timeshare, new car…). What do friends and family say about their experience with that company? That product? What are people saying online? Consumers have so many more resources available to them now than even 10 years ago, and can use them for research – social media, chat rooms and websites. Trust your instincts, too. If a salesperson is giving you the heebie jeebies, run – don’t walk – away as fast as you can. Sadly, there are a lot of people trying to make a buck at consumers’ expense – that’s why at Marketplace “We’ve Got Your Back.” (Yep – that’s our show slogan. Busted.)
TOM: I have to admit to being much like that before I joined the show. What this talented team has taught me is to read labels, read fine print, resist phone solicitation and door-to-door as well. Rely on the word of friends and colleagues to determine whether a service or business is reliable. If someone really wants your business, they’ll answer your questions and listen to our complaints. If they’re not interested, then you know you should take your business somewhere else.