On Dec. 20, 2007, the British Office of Communications (Ofcom) fined television station Channel 4 one and a half million pounds for phone-in competitions that were conducted unfairly.
The Guardian of London reported December 21 that Ofcom said participants in two competitions on Channel 4 programs were misled about their chances or had no chance of winning, wasting millions of pounds paying to call in and enter.
The fines against Channel 4 are the latest in an ongoing series of investigations by government regulators into rigged phone-in competitions put on by major British television networks in recent years. Ofcom calls this type of programming “participation TV,” which it defines as “programming which invites viewers to interact, often by using premium rate telephone services, such as television voting lines and competitions.” The networks usually contract with telecommunications companies to run the competitions.
OfCom levied fines of one million pounds for an unfair phone-in competition called “You Say We Pay” on the Channel 4 program “Richard and Judy,” and 500,000 pounds for a competition on Channel 4’s “Deal or No Deal.”
According to The Guardian, Ofcom reported that between September 2004 and February 2007, approximately 2.9 million callers in the “You Say We Pay” competition paid over 2.2 million pounds, despite having no chance of winning.
In the case of “Deal or No Deal,” the interactive services company Channel 4 had hired to run the competition, iTouch, continued to run the competition for almost three months after discovering that results were skewed in favor of earlier callers. The Guardian reported that Channel 4’s gross revenues for the program were 2.1 million pounds during that period.
According to a July 2007 report by Ofcom, phone-in competitions were a revenue “goldmine” for the networks , but suffered from “systemic failure” in compliance with rules against misleading viewers. The Ofcom report is available online at http://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv/ifi/prsinquiry/.
On Feb. 19, 2008, Ofcom adopted new policies for “participation TV” which implemented the report’s recommendations. The new policies make broadcasters “directly responsible for the handling of all communications – whether by phone, email or post – from viewers,” and require them to obtain “independent third-party verification” of all the systems used to operate voting and competitions, according to a press release issued by Ofcom on February 19.
Few British television networks have been spared the scandal. In June 2007, the BBC was fined 350,000 pounds by Ofcom for faked phone-in competitions on the programs “Comic Relief,” “Sport Relief,” “Children in Need,” and “Blue Peter.”
According to The Guardian on July 19, 2007, television network Five was fined 300,000 pounds for the quiz show “Brainteaser,” which substituted members of its production staff for actual winners on several occasions.
In September 2007, Ofcom fined GMTV a record two million pounds for selecting contest winners in a phone-in competition before lines had closed, according to The Guardian on December 21.
Investigations have also been launched and fines levied by another regulatory agency, PhonepayPlus, formerly known as the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS). PhonepayPlus operates as part of Ofcom, monitoring television phone-in competitions along with phone services for psychics, dating, phone sex, directories, weather, and technical support. According to Ofcom’s February 19 press release, PhonepayPlus has also adopted new guidelines for phone services participating in phone-in competitions. Under the new rules, companies looking to provide services to broadcasters must first seek permission from PhonepayPlus, and must meet a number of conditions, such as ensuring that lines are closed promptly.
In February 2007, The Guardian reported that PhonepayPlus was investigating the “You Say We Pay” competition on Channel 4 program “Richard and Judy” after callers complained that the contest was conducted unfairly.
PhonepayPlus eventually fined Eckoh, the operator of the “You Say We Pay” competition, 150,000 pounds on July 6, 2007, and one month later fined “Deal or No Deal” service provider iTouch 30,000 pounds, according to The Guardian’s Dec. 21, 2007 story.
Channel 4 responded to PhonepayPlus’ February 2007 investigation by issuing a refund offer to anyone who had participated in the contest. The Guardian reported on Dec. 21, 2007 that participants had claimed 82,000 pounds and the offer would be available “indefinitely.”
Channel 4 has dropped all its phone-in competition programming and, according to The Guardian, is planning to sue service provider Eckoh because the company admitted to Ofcom that it knew it was breaking contest rules in the “You Say We Pay” competition but did not take any action to solve the problem or notify Channel 4.
Meanwhile, The Guardian reported December 21 that Ofcom has yet to rule on the investigations into a number of BBC programs prompted by the June 2007 “Blue Peter” scandal. (For more on the “Blue Peter” scandal, see “BBC Report: Network Should be More ‘Impartial’: Apology Issued to Queen for Misrepresentation” in the Summer 2007 Silha Bulletin.)
– Sara Cannon
Silha Center Staff