1 June 2007 tbs.pm/2151

BBC One’s Panorama recently investigated the whole world of television quizzes and competitions that employ the use of premium rate phone lines, and whilst the programmes implicated may not have been a huge surprise, the total extent of the problem seems to have been much wider than had previously been reported.

The worrying thing is that Panorama managed to uncover, without too much difficulty, what seems to be a stack of evidence for systematic abuse of premium rate phone lines relating to competitions and quizzes, over many years of their operation, for which legal experts seem to think that there’s a good case for prosecuting individuals.

This is despite most major broadcasters carrying out their own supposedly thorough audits (often employing the use of external auditors) and even taking broadcasts off air whilst this happened. It now seems fairly obvious that some broadcasters may not have wanted to delve too deep into the past for fear of what else might emerge from the woodwork.

Judging from Panorama’s report, it seems that the bulk of the problems relate to the companies that handle the phone lines for both the production companies and the broadcasters, which means that some broadcasters could potentially have been too trusting in these companies’ ability to deliver a legally compliant service.

Or maybe (perish the thought) certain broadcasters might have at some point suspected that a problem was occurring but instead, for whatever reason, decided to turn a blind eye to any suspicion that they might have had, maybe on the basis that they earn too much revenue from these calls to start asking too many awkward questions.

This isn’t even taking into account the whole world of quiz TV channels and similar programming, with obscure answers to supposedly simple questions, combined with misleading viewers into thinking that the odds of winning any prize are far better than they really are. The broadcasters are certainly culpable here.

In a few cases, the use of production staff or other persons as fake prize winners either to maintain an illusion that nothing has gone wrong (as in the case of Blue Peter), or to give the appearance that someone has won but without actually giving away any money, are serious enough – at least in the latter case – to demand a police investigation.

In short, one TV programme has achieved a more thorough investigation into the premium rate phone line industry than most broadcasters and their ‘independent’ audits have in years. Given Ofcom’s policy of only punishing broadcasters if evidence is available, it’s no wonder that it benefits broadcasters to remain tight-lipped if they can.

Meanwhile Channel 4 is reluctant to take its investigation of the Richard and Judy show’s “You Say We Pay” competition further back in time than 2005, despite the fact that Panorama independently managed to obtain additional evidence of possible irregularities that date back over a year prior to this.

A Richard and Judy viewer had contacted ICSTIS with their concerns over the show’s premium rate competition over a year ago, but got the distinct impression that they weren’t interested in pursuing the allegations any further. All of this seems to point to major flaws in the current regulatory structure that inevitably lead to widespread abuse of the system.

So to summarise, there seems to be evidence of widespread fraud, misuse and neglect relating to several high profile programmes, along with other evidence of abuse relating to part of the premium rate quiz industry.

Given the ease with which instances of fraud can be committed behind closed doors, such as picking a winner of a competition before the phone lines are closed, it would require incredibly tight levels of regulation to ensure that this never happens. Producers would need the use of several independent adjudicators, who ideally could not be deceived with technical trickery.

We can safely conclude that it would be easier to ban this sort of competition altogether to remove all uncertainty over such calls, since there are far too many variables involved (broadcaster, production company, production staff, call centre staff, telecomms company) and too much at stake for all of these to be trusted with self-regulation.

One approach could be for the Gambling Commission to reclassify all of this as a lottery, with a percentage of the proceeds going to charity. That won’t do so much to remove the risk of fraud though, since it’s much easier to audit the sale of lottery tickets or betting shop and casino takings than to regulate several competitions with numerous variables.

There’s another important issue to be addressed which isn’t a financial one, and that is the relationship between broadcasters and their viewers. After watching the Panorama you could be forgiven for thinking that broadcasters don’t care about their viewers as long as they watch their programmes and provide a source of easy income.

In most cases these days, depressingly, you would be right.

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