Jay Meisenhelder lost his job as a campaign manager and waited more than four months for his first unemployment check. He visited one of five D.C. unemployment offices regularly, filled out a batch of forms and wrote to his senator and representative, to no avail. Meisenhelder was getting desperate. At 28, he had a home in Cheverly and a wife and baby to support.
Television came to his rescue. He called WRC's Contact 4, and within six weeks the unemployment office called him to come down and pick up his check. Eighteen weeks of unemployment compensation came all at once. "I got writer's cramp endorsing checks," he says.
Like Meisenhelder, thousands of people are turning to television stations with problems. For these consumers, frustrated with conventional bureaucratic channels, television offers an effective, last-ditch means of advocacy. To broadcasters, consumer news provides a way to nurture a community-oriented image and boost ratings.
To businesses, however, "consumer TV" often represents a constant and powerful intruder. Meisenhelder himself attributes Contact 4's success to what he calls "the intimidation factor"; that is, the threat of lights and cameras exposing an operation.
The result of this triangular counterpoint: Frequent threats of lawsuits against the television stations, a handful of which are actually filed, all of which, to date, have been dropped or decided in favor of the television station. The most recent example was an $800,000 suit that went to trial last month in Baltimore, in which a Laurel, Md., auto dealer charged WJLA with libel and fraud for a story aired on "Seven on Your Side" in May 1981. WJLA won on both counts.
But despite such obstacles, consumer TV is thriving. Consumer experts say that because there are so many government agencies here, Washington is the largest market for this kind of local news feature.
"In my situation it was certainly effective," Meisenhelder says. "Frankly, it works better than state consumer agencies or the Better Business Bureau. Sometimes their bureaucracies are just as confused as the one you're trying to deal with."
Local stations are inundated with letters and calls from consumers. Paul Berry of WJLA says his "Seven on Your Side" feature draws 1,000 letters each week; WRC's veteran consumer reporter Lea Thompson says she receives 200 to 300 calls a day in addition to the mail, and used to get even more when the now-defunct "Contact 4" was operating; and Ellen Kingsley of WDVM's "Consumer 9" investigative report says her office gets about 100 calls and letters a week, in addition to tips from consumer agencies.
While consumer TV has its skeptics, others suggest that a "watchdog" role is ideal for television. One supporter is Donald P. Rothschild, a law professor and co-director of George Washington University's Consumer Protection Center, who has been working with consumers and television stations as a consultant for 11 years. Rothschild contends that "it's not the inability of the consumer to advocate for himself, but the complexity of the marketplace" that makes people turn to television.
"It's a service for people who feel frustrated," says Rothschild's colleague Rick Wills. "Be they rich or poor, they feel they've been ripped off and want someone to talk to. We've even had attorneys call us."
The most common problems relate to automobiles--their purchase, financing and maintenance account for up to a third of the complaints--followed by furniture and large appliances, mail fraud, housing and credit. Rothschild says that because large companies have replaced small, family-owned businesses, people find it increasingly difficult to complain directly to merchants and require an intermediary.
"Today the business owner is likely to be in Japan," says Rothschild, in reference to the auto industry. "How do you reach someone who is so distanced?"
Roxie Prince, a 40-year-old employe of the Small Business Administration, did not like having to park her car several blocks away from her Georgia Avenue home. But that is what she often had to do, because the streets were cleaned between U Street and Eastern Avenue NW from 2 to 6 a.m. Signs clearly dictated no parking between those hours, Monday through Friday, and Prince says getting a $10 ticket was not uncommon.
Prince and her neighbors signed a petition asking permission to park on both sides of the street at all times. They wrote to the mayor, their City Council member, Charlene Drew Jarvis, Rep. Walter Fauntroy, and the head of street operations, Prince says. Nothing happened.
"As a last resort," Prince wrote to Lea Thompson. In four months, the signs were changed. They now read no parking Tuesday and Wednesday between 2 and 6 a.m. for one side of the street, and no parking Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 2 and 6 a.m. for the other side. Prince says the situation still isn't "ideal, but it's better than before." And, "I got nothing positive from any of the other sources."
There is no way to measure the success of consumer features on each station's evening news; ratings are useful only in judging a whole program, not its segments. But to accommodate the heavy viewer response, consumer TV comes in several packages, with reporters who work exclusively on consumer news, back-up staffs and snappy titles.
* Channel 4 (WRC) has its "Consumer Unit" with reporter Lea Thompson, who is now also a nightly co-anchor at WRC. Thompson has already established a national reputation as an investigative reporter with her stories on asbestos in hair dryers, the dangers of infant baby formula and most recently, vaccinations for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus. She works with a producer, an associate producer, a writer and a staff of four to seven interns. For special reports, such as the vaccination study, a full-time researcher is brought in.
Although "Contact 4" used to resolve individual problems, since last fall the Consumer Unit has concentrated on broader investigative reports.
"We felt we could do better service to viewers by looking at the whole picture rather than looking at individual cases," Thompson says, adding that the backlog of cases made them "wonder if you're really doing a service to viewers by making them wait more than four weeks" for results.
* Channel 7 (WJLA) offers three kinds of consumer broadcasts, which include both investigative reports and problem-solving. "Seven on Your Side" employs, in addition to Berry, four full-time workers and up to 20 college interns. Betsy Ashton, who will leave this week for a similar assignment at WCBS in New York (she will be replaced by Andy Field from Green Bay, Wis.), has been covering the general market, and John Spiropolous reports on the economy.
* Channel 9 (WDVM) enlisted Ellen Kingsley from a Baltimore station to direct the "Consumer 9" team, which includes producer/researcher Wendy Goldband and a varying number of interns. Before she became a TV reporter, Kingsley worked in New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs. "Consumer 9" also works in conjunction with the Consumer Protection Center at George Washington -- gleaning reported cases that reveal a pattern of abuse (the only stories that air) and sponsoring a "Consumer 9" office there that resolves consumer complaints (as a community service).
The modus operandi is the same for each station. Callers are urged to put their complaints in writing and attach copies of any receipts, contracts, correspondence, etc.; they are also encouraged to register with a consumer agency. If the problem is personal or can be solved only through litigation, the consumer is told to get professional help (but isn't referred to anyone). Otherwise, within 10 days he gets a postcard from the station, saying his letter has been received and that the problem is under investigation.
Meanwhile, the station sends a copy of the consumer's letter to the alleged offending business. From that point it assumes the role of mediator. Kingsley estimates 10 to 20 percent of her cases are minor misunderstandings that can be resolved with one phone call. "And the consumer isn't always right," she points out. "Sometimes the consumer is dead wrong. But it's a matter of perceptions, not something deliberate."
Carl Anderson, owner of an Alexandria sporting goods store, was contacted by "Seven on Your Side" in early May. He was told by one of Paul Berry's assistants that a young woman had registered a complaint against Anderson's Locker Room, charging she had been sold a pair of running shoes that didn't fit, then denied the opportunity to exchange them. Anderson responded in writing and told his side of the story: the customer had left the store, apparently satisfied, wearing a size 5 1/2 shoe; she returned four days later, the shoes visibly worn, complaining they were the wrong size and demanding another pair. When the customer was measured again and told the fit was indeed correct, she verbally abused the store manager and caused a scene that prompted one customer to apologize to the manager.
Ultimately, after some mediation by "Seven on Your Side," Anderson's Locker Room sold the woman a new pair of shoes at a discount.
"You know, I'm a customer, too, on a lot of occasions. I got a wife and kids. I'll be honest with you," says Anderson. "There are rip-off artists and I know lots of companies aren't legitimate. At least 'Seven on Your Side' will bring a little pressure to bear on some of these firms . . . but I think that the threat of being on television and cameras coming through the door isn't kosher."
Once approached, most companies are willing to cooperate with the television reporter and customer in reaching a compromise, reporters say. What Meisenhelder called "the intimidation factor," Thompson refers to as "the power of public exposure." "No business," she points out, "wants its name on a TV show associated with dissatisfied customers."
Dana P. (Dan) Miller, regional vice president of the Credit Bureau Inc., agrees that television has a "valid role to play" in informing the public on consumer issues. "If we can educate the public about our view and what laws exist to protect them, then we're glad to take the time" to go on the air, he says.
But Miller, who says he has been contacted by all three stations on several occasions, also says he has been burned by consumer TV. When the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in 1974, he says, he spent "all morning" with a television crew, going over general information about CBI and explaining how the new law would affect consumers. "Only 45 seconds was aired," he says, which in his opinion made CBI look like "a loose operation."
Says Miller: "If I have any real quarrel with the media, it is its tendency to edit, and usually to edit to support the perception they want to convey."
Consumer TV reporters say only a fraction of one percent of their cases are chosen for broadcast. Usually, they are cases that do not get solved by a phone call, cases showing a pattern of abuse, or cases that are particularly unusual.
Donald Lowenstein, a retired letter carrier from Indian Head, Md., and self-avowed "junk mail addict," answered a mail-order ad in October 1980, requesting three tarps for $12.99 and some garden hose nozzles. The nozzles came, but in July, he "figured enough time had gone by" and wrote to the company about the tarps he had never received ("They cashed the whole check"). In return, he got a postcard saying the business was backlogged with orders and offering a refund for the price of only one tarp.
Lowenstein's wife, Florence, called the Hollywood, Calif., business three times and Lowenstein wrote them again. By November, he was still being told the nozzles and tarps would arrive within 21 days.
They called Ellen Kingsley and joined dozens of people who contacted Channel 9 about the ad; one consumer said she wrote Kingsley because she'd seen her on TV and "she sounded very nice." The case is still pending.
One drawback to consumer TV, consumer and media experts point out, is the questionable journalistic merit of solving isolated, individual cases for the purpose of broadcast. "Seven on Your Side," perhaps the best-known consumer TV feature in Washington and the winner of two recent Emmys, has been criticized for what observers call its "heroic" tone and lack of real news value. "There's a fine line between self-promotion and something that's really instructive," says one industry colleague who asked not to be named.
WJLA vice president and station manager Dow Smith says that on the basis of his station's informal polls, "SOS" is by far the most popular show of its kind because "people can relate to people with problems." And Berry argues that it is precisely the happy ending that people respond to, not the problems.
"The audience doesn't want to see problems on television," he says. "The audience wants to see someone on the air who won. It's the vicarious win. People need reassurance that in the day-to-day comedy of things that, yes, you can come out on top."
Berry likes to tell about the time he reunited a man and his ring. A fisherman had found a class ring on the banks of the Potomac and called "SOS." Berry contacted the university, secured a list of all graduates of the designated year who had bought the signet, then called the whole list until he found the man who had been a summer intern here 12 years ago.
SOS mailed the class ring to its owner in Cleveland, contacted its sister station, the ABC affiliate there, and a camera crew filmed the man opening the package so the story could air in Washington and Cleveland.
"I don't know what purpose it serves," says Sam Simon, executive director of the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting, of this style of reporting. "It doesn't serve the most number of people."
Simon also says the principles Berry states in conclusion do not follow from his examples. The morals "are rather milquetoast," Simon says. "Like 'always read your contract first [before signing].' "
"Congress Watch" staff lawyer Harvey Rosenfield says, "As an attorney having watched the media play a critical role [in consumer affairs], my sense is that the media shortchanges the public by limiting its involvement to case-by-case efforts."
But consumer TV seems to have found a place in broadcasting. Its presence, Rosenfield suggests, "indicates the extent that the public can't obtain assistance from the organized bar."
It's a breakdown in the justice system, he says; most people cannot easily afford a lawyer, especially for relatively minor problems.
Meanwhile, the pleas for help persist and local television stations continue to straddle the fence between consumers and businesses. Says Berry: "It's a very simple concept. If you're not fair, we'll tell."