The problems of plummeting viewer confidence in premium rate phone services promoted on television programmes have claimed their first corporate casualty. Paul Corley, the managing director of British breakfast television company GMTV, said he took responsibility for their phone-in quiz problems and has resigned.
“It is important that people take responsibility when mistakes are made that threaten the trust of our viewers,” he said. “I hope that my resignation, and the strong measures we have put in place, will help to restore that trust in GMTV.” He will leave in September after instituting plans to refund affected viewers and more strictly manage phone-in quizzes.
His resignation follows a zero tolerance policy on viewer deception announced by Michael Grade, the executive chairman of the commercial broadcaster ITV plc which owns 75% of GMTV. He was one of a number of television executives invited to answer questions by the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee.
The issue even attracted the attention of the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. “This is a very serious matter because it affects the confidence that people have in television stations,” he told the House of Commons. He said he would discuss the recent problems with the communications regulator Ofcom.
Ofcom has responded to the issue in characteristic style by publishing a consultation on the future regulation of participation television. It is considering new licence obligations for television and radio broadcasters which will hold them directly responsible for consumer protection and compliance with respect to premium rate services and a requirement to ensure independent third party verification of such activity.
The problems at GMTV were highlighted by a BBC Panorama programme that suggested that their premium rate phone-in competitions which cost participants more than £40 million to enter had been unfair. The managing director of GMTV apologised personally to viewers on air in April and promised that the company would reimburse any viewers that were affected.
It followed a spate of investigations and subsequent admissions of irregularities on phone-in competitions. Ofcom fined Channel 5 £300,000 for breaches of the Broadcasting Code in the transmission of a quiz programme. It subsequently published a report concluding that “compliance failures were systemic” across the industry.
The BBC has also been embroiled in the issue. It recently cancelled all phone-related, interactive and online competitions after investigations revealed that members of production staff had posed as winners on charity fundraising programmes. That followed a £50,000 fine from Ofcom for a similar incident on its flagship children’s programme Blue Peter.
Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, issued a statement on 18 July announcing “a total suspension of all competitions” with immediate effect.
It appears that the cancellation of competitions does not extend to call-in voting shows. It was business as usual on its latest BBC One Saturday night dancing competition programme DanceX, with viewers invited to call premium rate numbers to vote, with part of the cost of a call used to support a bursary to fund young musicians.
Many programme formats are now dependent on viewer participation. Some viewers are now arguing that if public service broadcasters are genuinely interested in involving their audiences, they should use standard national numbers or local rate lines, rather than enabling third-party providers to profit from premium rate phone calls. That includes BBC Audiocall, the telephone services business run by commercial subsidiary BBC Woldwide.