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Why Britain is hooked on supermarket TV

As the high street withers, it thrives on our screens.

Did you know that the smell of instant coffee is added by an aroma storage tank in the factory? That Aldi products have bar codes on every side to speed up the checkout process? That those giant Sports Direct mugs were deliberately included in online orders to make them ubiquitous? That the question a Poundworld manager hears most often is: “How much is this?”

A bunch of great titbits for your dinner parties, there. But don’t thank me. Thank the unlikely boom in supermarket TV. As the British high street declines, programmes about what happens on it have gone the opposite way. Behind-the-scenes documentaries about supermarkets, household brands and high-street chains are increasingly popular with the British public.

This week alone, viewers can choose from Aldi Vs Lidl: Supermarket Wars on Channel 5, a new series of Channel 4’s Food Unwrapped, which asks if home-grown produce works out cheaper than supermarket shopping, a revamp of ITV2’s Supermarket Sweep (helmed by Rylan Clark-Neal, looking particularly glossy in the veg aisle), and an episode of BBC One’s third series of Supermarket Secrets – presented by Gregg Wallace, complete with superfluous hairnet – after its first outing in April.

Last month, Gregg Wallace revealed how your supermarket staples are made on BBC Two’s Inside the Factory. On Channel 5’s Sports Direct: Secrets of the Mega Sports Factory and Inside Aldi: Britain’s Biggest Budget Supermarket, meanwhile, slightly dazed former employees gave away till-side secrets, while Channel 4’s sixth series of Supershoppers promised a bonanza for value-for-money fetishists.

There was also Channel 5’s Inside Tesco: Britain’s Biggest Supermarket in April, Secrets of Your Supermarket Food in March, its Save Money series and Philip Green & The Trouble With Topshop in June, The Trouble With M&S in May 2018, and Channel 4’s three-part documentary, Saving Poundstretcher, following the trials of a family-run business under the stubborn patriarch and tat-buyer-in-chief Aziz Tayub, in August last year. Burger Wars: McDonalds Vs Burger King will air on Channel 5 next week, and Cola Wars: Coca Cola vs Pepsi is also in the pipeline.

In May, BBC One announced it had commissioned a six-part documentary about Sainsbury’s, chronicling a year in the life of Britain’s oldest supermarket as it reaches its 150th birthday this year. Three months later, it was reported that Channel 5 has ordered its own: Inside Sainsbury’s: Britain’s 150 Year Old Supermarket— Posh or Past It (working title).

Overwhelming, right? A bit like venturing into the Big Supermarket without a list. But we love them, apparently. Inside Aldi was one of Channel 5’s highest-rated shows for the year so far, peaking at 2.2m viewers, with a live viewing audience of 11 per cent (that’s the proportion of everyone watching TV at that time). Its Aldi Vs Lidl documentary this week gained more viewers than BBC Two and Channel Four’s entire 9pm factual output combined, with an 8.7 per cent real-time audience. Both programmes exceeded Channel 5’s 5.5 per cent average in that slot. Both attracted a notable proportion of younger viewers.

According to 2017 figures, of the top five most watched episodes of Channel 4's Dispatches in its current format, four were about high-street shops and all five explored household brands: Secrets of Poundland in 2012, Secrets of Your Supermarket Shop in 2013, The Secrets of Sports Direct in 2015, Aldi’s Supermarket Secrets in 2015, and Secrets of Cadbury in 2016.

“Anyone who works in investigative journalism thinks they’re changing the world, when in fact, truth be told, people just want to know what’s inside their sandwich, or how Poundland makes money by selling garden gnomes or dogfood for a pound,” says Harry Wallop, a consumer journalist who has presented shop-related episodes of Dispatches and contributes to similar shows.

This appetite, it seems, is timeless; viewers have always latched on to what is most relevant to their everyday lives, and sought tips and tricks for saving money – the two greatest appeals of such programmes. Stories about supermarkets and high-street brands also have the widest possible audience; the whole family can watch, understand and relate.

Yet there are a striking number of similar programmes at the moment. The factual commissioning editor at Channel 5, Daniel Pearl, notes there have been more of these programmes in the past year. This trend could partly be down to the cyclical nature of TV commissioning. One success heralds a wave of copycats.

For example, BBC Two’s Inside Claridge’s ratings hit in 2012 preceded many similar series exploring British institutions on other channels – since last June, Channel 5’s “Inside…” strand has lifted the curtain on Cadbury, Nando’s, Harrods and Hamleys. American broadcaster PBS’s “Secrets of Britain” series kicked off with Secrets of Selfridges in 2014.

And following Channel 4’s Dispatches on Poundland in September 2012, BBC One aired its Poundshop Wars pilot in November that year, ahead of two series tracking rival chains in 2014 and 2015. Channel 4’s Saving Poundstretcher arrived three years later, as the shops began to struggle.

Yet there is “something in the air at the moment” drawing people to these shows more than ever, observes Wallop. As major high street names have reduced their presence or melted away entirely over the past few years – Woolworths, BHS, Toys ‘R’ Us, Poundworld, House of Fraser, HMV, Debenhams – there is an almost premature nostalgia about those still standing.

“People are quite fond of some of the brand names, and there may be a dim awareness that some of them are under threat, and therefore it would be quite nice to find out more about them and their history and their heritage,” posits Wallop.

“You’ve had really big household names going bust”, he notes. “I think people do want to know what’s going on, they are very worried actually about their town centres struggling, and a programme which shows how these companies exist, how they came about, why they survived, I think feeds into some need to understand our economic landscape.”

As business stories climb the news agenda, more and more people are tuning in. “Things are changing very quickly,” Channel 5’s Daniel Pearl tells me. “It just means that business stories are far more intense and acute, which makes it a much more compelling story. The jeopardy around: ‘Will Sainsbury’s survive?’”

Viewers may also be feeling financially vulnerable themselves. Inflation keeps rising, average household debt is at a record high, and the UK has faced nearly a decade of austerity, wage stagnation and benefit freezes. Programmes purporting to give away high-street secrets feel like an exclusive guide to smarter shopping.

“Whenever you have a meeting with a [TV] commissioner, it’s like, what top tips do we give to consumers to help them save money?” reveals Wallop. “They love programmes where people go ‘I’ve learned something new, but also something to help me save money’.”

When Channel 4’s Dispatches on Poundland aired in 2012, Wallop was surprised by his audience’s strong reaction to its practice of shrinking pack sizes to stay profitable. He also discovered the genuine bargains (its eight-packs of superglue are a steal, by the way) among the illusory deals  (products that would cost less than a pound elsewhere).

“Both commissioning editors and consumers hope that in going behind the scenes, not only do you find something [new] but you will learn how to save money”, Wallop says.

We are also now more curious about where our food and household products come from. “There’s a massive desire from consumers to know where their food’s being made, how it’s being sold – is it really healthy? Is it really environmentally sustainable?” notes Pearl.

He finds that “pure specialist factual shows”, particularly about factories and processes, are working well for Channel Five. These fit in a similar mould to successful YouTube explainer videos, such as those by the media platform Vox, which gain millions of views by outlining how the world works.

“There’s just so much information out there, and it can sometimes be overwhelming,” he tells me. “You can definitely feel a desire for knowledge; people want to understand what’s going on.”

While laughing at David Brent-esque regional managers might feel like bargain-basement television, it exposes more about the current state of Britain than perhaps any other format.

“Traditionally, you might do a documentary about a council, or social services, or the prisons, or police, and all those things are still really important and interesting,” says Pearl. “But I think there’s a recognition now that these high-street brands are the institutions in people’s lives.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.