Ofcom is to investigate the growing number of complaints in connection with premium rate telephone lines. The communications regulator is concerned that British broadcasters are misleading viewers. Despite being cleared by independent auditors, the main commercial broadcaster has already pulled its ITV Play channel.

There has been growing criticism of the way in which viewers have been exploited by phone-in votes and competitions. These include claims that competitions have been unfair and that viewers have been overcharged for voting.

“This goes to the heart of the matter of trust in broadcasters and of their compliance with regulation,” said Ed Richards, the chief executive of Ofcom. “Thousands, possibly millions, of viewers have been misled. We recognise this is an extremely big issue about wholly unacceptable behaviour.”

The regulator ultimately has the power to fine commercial broadcasters up to 5 per cent of their turnover for infringements.

In January, the regulator found that ITV had breached the Broadcasting Code with a phone-in competition. In one of its Quizmania prize questions it asked viewers to name 12 things that might be found in a woman’s handbag. Needless to say, no one correctly guessed that it might include a “balaclava”. Ofcom concluded that the competition was not conducted fairly and criticised the broadcaster.

It subsequently emerged that ITV had been inadvertently overcharging viewers for voting on one of its most popular programmes. As a result, the company immediately suspended all its premium rate interactive services. It instituted a formal review by an independent auditor. This cleared its main prime time programmes and its dedicated participation channel.

A number of complaints were also made about programmes from other broadcasters. A meeting was called by the premium rate telephony regulator ICSTIS to address the issue. Both broadcasters and the regulators were keen to restore public confidence.

ITV then pulled the ITV Play channel it launched just a year ago. It will now only run as overnight programming on the main ITV channels.

ITV claims that it was a “commercial decision” unrelated to recent scrutiny of phone-in programmes. The dedicated participation channel will be replaced by a time-shifted version of its ITV2 channel.

All the main terrestrial television channels face criticism over their conduct of viewer voting.

Sky may be pleased that it has avoided criticism. It decided against launching a quiz channel at a time when other broadcasters, including many on the satellite platform, were rushing to embrace the format. The pay-television operator has said that its long-term relationship with its viewers was too important to jeopardise with short-term gains from a format it believed was unsustainable.

Even the BBC, which does not aim to profit from phone lines, has admitted errors of judgement. It emerged that even its flagship children’s programme, Blue Peter, an icon of propriety, although no strange to controversy, was not immune. The programme had been unable to put callers on air during a live show and had instead asked a child visiting the studio to phone in as the winning viewer in a charity appeal.

The BBC director general, Mark Thompson, has described the problems that have recently emerged as “a wake up call to the industry”. He said: “Across broadcasting we have to look very, very closely at the way we use phone lines.”

Ofcom is apparently carrying out 23 separate investigations into programmes over what has been described as a systematic failure of compliance with broadcasting codes by television companies, which has betrayed the trust of viewers.

In their race to embrace participation television, broadcasters have been quick to exploit the potential of premium rate phone calls as an additional revenue stream. They have also been quick to exploit those viewers that are probably least able to discriminate and least able to pay. The published terms and conditions for ITV Play run to over eight thousand words. It would take a one hour television programme to explain them. In regarding their viewers as consumers, it seems some have cynically seen them as punters that can be taken for a ride.

Under its new chairman and chief executive Michael Grade, ITV has acted quickly to address the damage to its tarnished brand. In the future, broadcasters will need to take interactive and participation programmes more seriously if they are to retain the trust of their viewers.