How do phone-in competitions work? How widespread is the problem? How much money is being made and who’s making it? Ian Burrell asks the Big Question
Why are we asking this question now?
This deception of viewers on such a vast scale represents one of the greatest crises in confidence in British television since commercial TV began more than half a century ago. The scandal has been steadily growing amid revelations that more and more television shows are implicated.
None of the major terrestrial broadcasters, including the BBC, has remained untainted. Last night’s investigation by the BBC investigative programme Panorama contained the most damaging allegations yet, suggesting that millions of viewers of ITV’s GMTV breakfast show had been duped into making premium-rate phone-calls for competitions they had no chance of winning because the winners had already been chosen.
The alleged swindle, which is denied by Opera Interactive Technology, is thought to have generated £45,000 a day (or £10m a year) in wasted calls and to have resulted from alleged malpractice that has been going on for four years. GMTV yesterday said it had terminated its contract with Opera Interactive Technology with immediate effect after its own inquiries had revealed “irregularities''”in the system.
The television phone-in scandal is being investigated by Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog, and Icstis, the body which oversees the premium-rate telecoms industry.
How do phone-in competitions work?
Faced by ever-shrinking advertising revenue, television companies have seized on the growth of red-button interactive services and telephone technology to develop fresh revenue streams.
Popular television quizzes, often asking the simplest of questions to generate maximum response, have become highly lucrative. Other phone-ins offer viewers the chance to cast votes that will influence the outcome of a show.
Premium-rate phone calls cost between 10p and £1.50 a minute from a BT landline and Icstis regulations require the hosts of programmes to state clearly the cost when announcing a competition. The phone-ins are invariably organised by specialist service providers on behalf of television production companies, who in turn make the programme for the broadcaster. A lack of accountability appears to have created an environment where malpractice has become common.
One regular quiz show contestant claims to have made more than £100,000 in prize money in the past six months after working out the methods used by the service providers. He said with the use of a stopwatch and calling in advance of phone-lines officially opening he had greatly enhanced his chances of being selected, with some service providers simply picking out the first caller into the system.
The man said some quiz show hosts had remarked on how often he had been featured. He also claimed that telephone engineers had worked out methods of cheating the system so that they were selected as contestants.
How widespread is the problem?
So far-reaching that none of the major channels has emerged unscathed. Channel 4 was embarrassed by claims that calls costing £1 each to the You Say, We Pay quiz on the Richard & Judy show were accepted long after contestants had been selected.
The broadcaster has launched an internal inquiry and is being investigated by Icstis. ITV’s The X-Factor was exposed for overcharging those viewers who paid up to 50p to vote using the red button on their remote control. More problems emerged with flagship ITV shows Ant& Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and Dancing On Ice. Channel Five’s quiz Brainteaser was found to have put up a member of the production team as a competition “winner”. The channel’s chief executive, Jane Lighting, was shocked, and suspended all premium phone-line shows. Brainteaser is under investigation by Ofcom.
Meanwhile, the BBC is anything but in the clear. Icstis is investigating how Saturday Kitchen led phone-in voters to believe that Eamonn Holmes was live in the studio when in fact the programme was pre-recorded and he was simultaneously hosting his radio show on Five Live. Blue Peter was then dragged into the affair, encouraging a child who was visiting the studio to pretend to be a caller, and allowing her to pick a prize.
How much money is being made and who’s making it?
Although some shows such as Blue Peter charged 10p a call, others, including Vernon Kay’s Gameshow Marathon, charged £1. Panorama claimed that callers to the GMTV quiz were invariably held on the line for at least two minutes, so their calls cost £1.80.
The entire premium-line business has grown at an extraordinary rate in recent years. It has 45,000 services in operation, from TV quiz shows and polls to mobile phone text alerts and ring-tones. The quiz show money is carved up between the broadcasters, the production companies and the service providers.
Generally speaking, the broadcaster takes 30 per cent of the pot and the phone service provider about 10 per cent. The television production company takes 25 per cent (including 15 per cent to cover costs). After tax, about 15 per cent is left to give away as prize money. The biggest names among the phone-service providers operating in television-based competitions include Eckoh, iTouch, Cactus TV, Wap TV and MX Telecom.
What are the TV companies doing about all of this?
All the major broadcasters have acted, calling in auditors and promising to make their findings available to industry watchdogs. Icstis has also tightened its rules so that, from next month, callers must be alerted when they have spent more than £10 and quiz show hosts must announce the cost of a premium-rate call at least once every 10 minutes.
Are people going to be prosecuted?
Icstis, the body which polices the premium rate service providers, has powers to impose fines of up to £250,000 and to “name and shame” those who are found to have breached its rules. It is investigating Channel 4’s Richard & Judy and the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen. The results of those inquiries are expected at the end of next month. Ofcom, meanwhile, has more than 20 investigations under way into various allegations relating to the phone-in scandal.
An overall Ofcom inquiry, led by Richard Eyre, non-executive member of the Ofcom Content Board, will unveil his findings in early summer. The City of London police investigated allegations last year relating to the former quiz show channel Big Game TV, but the Crown Prosecution Service ruled there was insufficient evidence to proceed. It remains to be seen whether further police inquiries will be undertaken into other broadcasters.
So is it a complete waste of time reaching for the telephone?
The quizzes have been shown to be wide open to abuse by insiders who know how to manipulate the system
Vulnerable viewers are being duped into spending money on competitions they have no chance of winning
The damage being done to the credibility of the medium is undermining the work of serious programme makers
A phone-in poll can bring an element of democracy to television
We are in the era of interactivity, and the public wishes to be more than just a passive consumer of media. The millions taking part in phone-ins prove the demand to be involved is there
Phone-based revenue streams have become a key component of the TV industry, helping to pay for higher-quality programme content