Participation programmes that involve viewers voting through premium rate phone numbers will be subject to further scrutiny. It follows several allegations of embarrassing irregularities. The British Prime Minister welcomed a meeting of broadcasters with the industry regulator to restore consumer confidence in call-in shows.
ICSTIS, which regulates premium rate telephone services in the United Kingdom, has announced a number of actions aimed at restoring public trust in participation television.
The watchdog is writing to broadcasters and their partners asking them to review their current and future participation television programming to ensure that there is no risk of consumer harm. It expects a report within two weeks and promises to involve the police if there was any evidence of fraud.
In addition, there will be systematic monitoring and inspections to ensure that services are compliant with complete, accurate and easily understood rules for all competition services.
A licensing scheme for premium rate service providers operating participation television services will be introduced within three months. ICSTIS also proposes to explore the possibility of introducing a trust mark or quality standard to build long-term public confidence in services.
It follows a hastily convened meeting with broadcasters, producers and service providers after alleged irregularities in participation programming from a number of broadcasters.
The interactive industry in the United Kingdom is in turmoil after a series of revelations about shows inviting viewers to vote using premium rate telephone and interactive television services.
It has emerged that viewers have been invited to vote on programmes that have already been pre-recorded, while in other cases producers have faked phone-in winners to encourage more callers. The issue was precipitated when commercial broadcaster ITV revealed that it had overcharged viewers voting via interactive television through an entire series of its interactive talent show X Factor.
“There is no doubt that the public thoroughly enjoys taking part in premium rate competitions and votes on television,” said the chairman of ICSTIS, Sir Alistair Graham. “However, there is equally no doubt that public trust and confidence in these services has been damaged by the allegations that have been made in the last few weeks.”
He said that ensuring viewers get a fair deal is an absolute priority of ICSTIS, but that premium rate service providers, programme makers and broadcasters all have a major role to play in this area.
“If we find any evidence that a criminal offence has occurred,” he said, “I can assure you that we will refer any such evidence to the police.”
The regulator is currently investigating six shows from the BBC, ITV and Channel Four. Channel Five pulled viewer votes, quizzes and competitions after it emerged that viewers may have been misled by programmes produced by the ironically named company Cheetah television.
The debate even reached the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, where Tony Blair said that he understood the issue was “causing a great deal of concern to many members of the public”. He said he welcomed the temporary suspension of premium rate services by the commercial broadcaster ITV pending a review and a meeting with the regulator. He said: “It is obviously important that they come together with the relevant telecommunications companies and make sure that the service is provided in a reliable and trustworthy way.”
Premium rate telephone services are big business in Britain, generating around £1.2 billion in 2006. They have increasingly been seen as a significant source of income to supplement declining television advertising revenues. Some observers have suggested that producers have had a cavalier attitude towards inviting viewer votes and participation.
ITV stands to lose over a million pounds a week while phone-in shows are suspended. It hopes to be able to continue voting on its Saturday night show Dancing on Ice after being cleared in an investigation by independent auditors.
The phone-in fiasco has echoes of the American quiz show scandals of the early days of television, in which contestants were found to have been coached by producers. One such incident was dramatized in the 1994 film Quiz Show.