A British broadcaster has been fined £300,000 for breaches of the Broadcasting Code in the transmission of a quiz programme. Channel 5 faces the largest financial penalty so far imposed by Ofcom on a public service broadcaster. Production staff faked winners on its Brainteaser programme made by ironically named Cheetah Productions, a subsidiary of Endemol UK.

The record fine follows a number of irregularities discovered in participation television programmes that use premium rate telephone lines.

“We take these issues extremely seriously and will not hesitate to protect viewers’ interests,” said Ed Richards, the chief executive of the communications regulator Ofcom. “Every broadcaster needs to take very careful note of this decision.”

The live daytime game show Brainteaser included an invitation to viewers to enter a series of instant anagram competitions by calling premium rate phone lines. Winners were awarded immediate cash prizes, announced by the presenter.

On three occasions fake names were used for competition winners and on two occasions production staff posed on air as winners after they failed to find a winner within the time available.

Channel 5 Broadcasting Ltd was found to have breached the Broadcasting Code which states that “Competitions should be conducted fairly, prizes should be described accurately, and rules should be clear and appropriately made known”.

The broadcaster was found to have contravened the code on five separate occasions between January and March 2007, with longstanding failures in compliance in its Brainteaser and Memory Bank programmes since 2003.

The first instance of unfair conduct apparently occurred in January 2003, when there were technical problems putting entrants on air. It subsequently appears to have become a “more formalised system,” according to the findings of the communications regulator Ofcom.

Ofcom discovered that there were instances of unfair conduct in Brainteaser on seven occasions between 2003 and 2006, and on four separate occasions in the spin-off programme Memory Bank in 2004.

Ofcom found that this “showed a blatant disregard for not only the audience of the show, but also those participating and spending money by entering some competitions which were not being run fairly”.

The programme was suspended in March 2007, following widespread concern over call in competitions, and Channel 5 has decided that it will not return. Both Brainteaser and Memory Bank were made for Channel 5 by Cheetah Productions, a subsidiary of the independent production company Endemol UK.

The system for putting production staff on air as competition winners was established by a senior member of the production staff at Cheetah without reference to Channel 5. The executive subsequently joined the Channel 5 commercial development team, but did not reveal the practice. Channel 5 stated that it was not aware that production staff had been put to air as winners.

As the broadcaster of the programme, Channel 5 has the ultimate legal responsibility through its licence conditions to ensure that all its programmes comply with the relevant codes. Ofcom does not regulate production companies which supply programmes to broadcasters.

Channel 5 has stated that in any future competitions the names of winners will be checked against data provided by the telephony service provider and reconciled with those who have been sent cheques.

Ofcom accepted that Channel 5 had acted in good faith at all times and had not intended its service to deceive the audience. It also accepted that the primary motivation behind the unfair conduct of these competitions was not to cause financial harm to viewers or to increase revenues.

Nevertheless, Ofcom found that Channel 5 was at the very least negligent in terms of its obligation to ensure compliance of its programmes.

It follows a number of investigations by Ofcom into premium rate phone-in programmes, a genre known in the industry as call TV.

A separate inquiry into the use of premium rate telephone services in television programmes is ongoing. The findings will be published this summer.

Meanwhile, the Gambling Commission says that it has yet to be convinced that broadcasters can continue to run quizzes classified as free draws and prize competitions by offering a free internet entry option.

“The likes of ITV, Five and C4 have to convince us of their argument that being able to enter a quiz via a web site constitutes free entry,” said a representative of the Gambling Commission.

If call-in quiz shows are considered to be lottery games then broadcasters will be required to obtain licences and donate up to 20% of call revenues to charity when the Gambling Act comes into effect in September.