ITV, the leading commercial broadcaster in the United Kingdom, has been fined a total of nearly £5.7 million for misleading premium rate telephone competitions. The fines, the highest ever imposed by the communications regulator Ofcom or its predecessors, reflect repeated serious failures and breaches of broadcasting codes. ITV was found to have disregarded the terms and conditions of its competitions, selecting finalists for on screen suitability rather than at random.

The sanctions relate to a number of programmes, including Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, over a number of years. Broadcaster LWT, now part of ITV plc, was found to have selected competition finalists before telephone lines were announced as closed and to have chosen some on the basis of their suitability to be on television or where they lived, rather than at random as stated.

The regulator concluded that the broadcaster chose to put entertainment above the trust of the audience.

“ITV programme makers totally disregarded their own published terms and conditions and Ofcom Codes,” said Philip Graf of the Ofcom sanctions committee. “There was a completely inadequate compliance system in place. The result was that millions of paying entrants were misled into believing they could fairly interact with some of ITV’s most popular programmes.”

Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards described it as an “institutionalised failure within ITV that enabled the broadcaster to make money from misconduct on mass audience programmes.”

ITV conducted its own review led by auditors Deloitte and supplied the results to Ofcom. However, no reference was made to regional programming that also used premium rate services. ITV was unable to provide Ofcom with sufficient information to enable a full investigation into these cases.

“Ofcom considers that this lack of information appears to indicate an absence of robust systems in place,” the regulator said in a statement. It said that ITV appeared to have introduced premium rate services “with little or no assessment of the associated risks and with poor levels of supervision.”

ITV has pledged to provide £7.8 million in compensation to viewers and donations to charity, which was taken into account by Ofcom in setting the fines.

Ofcom also investigated allegations of irregularities in the voting on the talent show The X Factor between 2005 and 2007, but found that the programmes did not breach broadcasting codes.

Ofcom is still investigating reported irregularities in the results of the British Comedy Awards in 2004 and 2005, also broadcast by ITV, as well as a number of programmes on BBC radio and television.

In its submission, ITV said that no-one in its senior management had held overall responsibility for ensuring the integrity of premium rate services, although the inclusion of interactive elements in programmes were provided by their interactive team or by interactive staff in their production division.

So far no significant disciplinary action has been taken against any ITV or LWT employee, although the managing director of GMTV honourably resigned, accepting responsibility for the failures at his company.

Last September Ofcom awarded a £2 million fine to the British breakfast broadcaster, in which ITV has a majority shareholding, for the “widespread and systematic deception of millions of viewers”.

In December Ofcom also fined Channel Four a total of £1.5 million for unfair You Say, We Pay and Deal or No Deal premium rate telephone competitions.

A boom in so-called participation programmes, which have raised millions of pounds in additional revenue for British broadcasters, has cost them dearly, not only in terms of fines, but in the loss of audience trust at a time when traditional television is already threatened by falling audiences and advertising revenues.

The production practices that have emerged display a cynical disregard for viewers that may not come as a surprise to those that have worked in television. Most viewers must suspect that the so-called reality presented by entertainment programming is a carefully constructed conceit, but nevertheless they have the right to consumer protection where they are paying to participate in programmes.

“The industry can be in no doubt how seriously Ofcom takes the issue of audience trust,” said its chief executive. “Our new licence conditions requiring broadcasters, who operate in this area, to conduct third party audits will ensure that consumers are protected.”

Responding to the Ofcom judgement, ITV executive chairman Michael Grade said that the broadcaster had “totally re-engineered its editorial, compliance and training procedures to safeguard against any recurrence of such breaches of trust.” He said the company had also taken a number of disciplinary measures. “Anyone working with or for ITV going forward is in no doubt of the standards expected and the consequences if they fall short.”