U.K. calls foul on phone-ins

Beeb among nets caught in scandal

LONDON — Is something genuinely rotten at the heart of British TV or did a handful of outfits get careless?

The answer is probably the latter, but as regulators continue to dish out fines for deceiving audiences in rigged on-air competitions webheads have realized their faith in TV phone-ins as a way of making a fast buck was a mite misplaced.

Among the companies being fined are the BBC, Five and Eckoh TV, a call in provider for Channel 4’s “Richard and Judy” show.

The bad publicity generated by Blighty’s call-TV scandal has hit the bottom lines of some of those involved. And with U.K. communications regulator Ofcom probing more than 20 allegations of malpractice by broadcasters involving premium phone lines and conducting a review of the sector more fines are expected.

Recently ITV topper Michael Grade warned that producers and broadcasters were displaying a “casual contempt” for audiences. He promised a zero-tolerance approach to suppliers and producers who deliberately mislead audiences.

Grade was speaking as watchdogs fined the BBC $100,000 for rigging a quiz in, of all things, a children’s show.

This was the first financial penalty levied on the BBC in more than 80 years of broadcasting, and is a huge embarrassment for an org that prides itself on integrity. Ofcom made it clear that were the BBC a commercial org the penalty would have been higher still — as it is, TV viewers will foot the bill via their annual license fees.

The fine was given for faking a competition winner in an edition of long-running flagship children’s show “Blue Peter,” once so squeaky-clean it made “Snow White” look off- color.

The incident occurred when a technical hitch hit the “Whose Shoes?” phone-in item, in which auds were invited to guess the identity of a mystery celebrity in aid of Unicef, and a girl on a studio tour was persuaded to pose as the winner.

Ofcom ruled the mistake was “set against a background of management and compliance failures.”

It should not have remained a secret known only to the “Blue Peter” production team, including the editor, for three months.

The “Blue Peter” fine followed one for $600,000 for RTL Group’s terrestrial web Five after producers were found guilty of faking winners in daily quiz show “Brainteaser” — made by Endemol-owned Cheetah Television — over four to five years, and a $300,000 fine for a quiz item on Channel 4’s “Richard & Judy.”

In the latter case, telephone services regulator Icstis fined service provider Eckoh for keeping phone lines open after winners were selected, and accused Eckoh of “a reckless disregard” for audiences.

Channel 4 has always denied it is guilty of wrongdoing in relation to the “Richard & Judy” phone quiz. Industryites are betting, however, that the broadcaster will have to write a big check once Ofcom acts.

Breakfast station GMTV, part-owned by Disney, may also be fined following allegations — firmly denied — that it kept phone lines open after quiz winners were chosen, defrauding viewers of an estimated $80 million over five years.

“The damage that’s been done to broadcasters is not catastrophic, but there is a real problem because the audience’s trust has been dented,” says Paul Robinson, a former U.K. Disney exec who runs European children’s channel KidsCo.

“The problem is to do with third-party suppliers of phone services and a lack of supervision at middle management. Inexperienced production staff are not properly supervised or they are intimidated to the extent where they feel they have to come up with a winner for every phone-in competition.

“At worst, it could be more cynical than that and amounts to commercial exploitation, but there is no doubt that these cases undermine the relationship between viewers and television companies.”

One company, Optimistic, which supplies programming to the U.S., France and the U.K. has been placed in conservatorship as a result of negative publicity generated by the controversies over premium line quizzes.

Earlier this year ITV pulled the plug on its ITV Play channel. The service is now restricted to a post-midnight slot on ITV1.

ITV’s half-yearly trading statement revealed that in the six months to June revenues from ITV Play plunged from $54 million a year ago to just $18 million.

Properly run phone quizzes provide valuable revenue for webs under pressure as advertising coin is harder to come by, but trust in these services is at rock bottom and any more mistakes might mean the game is up.

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