By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
As a CNBC reporter, David Faber had covered Wal-Mart’s earnings and growing work force for years. He and producer Lori Gordon were casting about for a project, having finished “The Big Heist,” about the AOL-Time Warner merger, and “The Big Lie,” about the rise and fall of WorldCom, and decided to focus on Wal-Mart.
“We weren’t sure what the story would be or how we would tell it,” Mr. Faber recalled. “But it was fully our expectation that Wal-Mart would not give us access.”
That all changed when, much to their surprise, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott granted them unprecedented access to the company’s executives and inner workings. Beleaguered by negative PR, the media-shy company had decided to talk, and CNBC was the beneficiary.
Mr. Faber and his team made the most of it. “The Age of Wal-Mart: Inside America’s Most Powerful Company,” which also won a 2005 Peabody Award, was the first television program to show the inside of a Wal-Mart store before its opening day; to follow its key executives inside the corporate jet; to visit the managers meeting, where thousands fervently joined in company cheers; to visit its distribution and technology centers; and to follow the story to China, where Wal-Mart was in the process of establishing a significant presence.
Getting a product carried by the behemoth retailer is a make-or-break proposition for many U.S. manufacturers, and one strand in the program illuminates the process vendors face in getting their products on Wal-Mart’s shelves.
The two-hour program follows the story of a mom-and-pop manufacturer from its first nerve-wracking pitch to when it succeeds in getting the product into Wal-Mart. Showing the other side of the equation, the program weaves a story of how the large manufacturer Pillowtex was brought to bankruptcy by its refusal to follow Wal-Mart’s advice and outsource manufacturing to China.
“We wanted people to realize how powerful-not necessarily good or bad, but how powerful-Wal-Mart is, even to those who have never shopped there,” Mr. Faber said.
The team was briefly detained in a police station in China, Mr. Faber said, after team members tried to interview factory workers.
Wal-Mart executives gave the feedback that they thought the show treated them fairly, Mr. Faber said. But he and his team didn’t flinch from telling the dark side. The result that’s most gratifying, he said, is that even after “The Age of Wal-Mart” has been aired dozens of times, it continues to attract viewers.