Canadian Consumer Affairs Program

Marketplace, which went on the air in 1972, is a weekly half-hour prime-time consumer news show on CBC. It has won many national and international awards, including the Gemini in 1994 as Canada's best information program. The format, which has changed little over its history, involves a pair of hosts introducing segments on product testing, service evaluation, fraudulent practices and trends in consumer advocacy. The show's audience has held up well for more than two decades--it remains one of CBC's most highly rated shows--and it is regarded by many in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as the benchmark by which other public affairs programs should be judged.

The first producer, Dodi Robb, with consumer reporter Joan Watson (from CBC radio) and broadcaster George Finstad as hosts, had a mandate to inform consumers about questionable sales practices and inferior products. From the beginning, the show treated consumer information as hard news, but it gradually expanded its mandate to include investigative reports with particular attention to public health and safety. According to Globe and Mail television writer John Haslett Cuff, the program is "a veritable gadfly in the hard-sell marketplace of consumer television." It is "routinely monitored . . . by manufacturers and government regulatory agencies and frequently copied by American newsmagazine programs such as 60 Minutes and 20/20." Although it does put defenders of commercial practices and products on "hot seat," it has an earnest quality that distinguishes it from the "ambush journalism" sometimes practiced by U.S. public affairs producers.

The program not only gets headlines, but, as one reviewer put it, it gets results. Laws have been amended, new regulations adopted and consumer guidelines imposed as a result of Marketplace reports. Among its major contributions are: the banning of urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) and lawn darts; warnings on pop bottles that sometimes explode on store shelves; prosecution of retailers for false advertising (leading in one case to a fine of $1 million); new standards for bottled drinking water, drinking fountains; new regulations for children's nightwear (to make them less flammable); new designs for children's cribs. From tests for bacteria content in supermarket hamburger (an early report) to checks on the safety of furnaces and long-haul tractor trailers, the program has used its small staff--relying on independent laboratories for tests--to considerable effect. Despite law suits and threats of suits (and other pressures), the show has retained its probing quality. The longest serving hosts, Joan Watson and Bill Paul became leading consumer advocates.

Photo courtesy of CBC

Reviewers have commented that the tough-minded consumer advocacy practiced by Marketplace is the kind of programming that public broadcasters, somewhat insulated from commercial considerations, should be providing. It is unlikely that the show would have had the same effectiveness and longevity in private-sector television. Its producers attribute consistent good ratings to its focus on the personal concerns of its audience, which derives in part from careful attention to the thousands of letters it receives from viewers each year, many of which have led to Marketplace investigations. Freedom from commercial pressures may also be significant.

-Frederick J. Fletcher and Robert Everett

HOSTS   George Finstad, Joan Watson, Harry Brown, Bill Paul, Christine Brown, and others

PRODUCERS Dodi Robb, Bill Harcourt, Jock Ferguson, Murray Creed


October 1972--


Miller, Mary Jane. Turn Up the Contrast: CBC Television Drama Since 1952. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press, 1987.

Stewart, Sandy. Here's Looking At Us: A Personal History of Television in Canada. Toronto, Canada: CBC Enterprises, 1986.


See also Canadian Programming in English