Late night programming featured topless hosts

BERLIN — Latenight call-in quiz shows featuring topless female hosts used to be all the rage in Germany, but the times are changing.

In recent years, execs at broadcast group ProSiebenSat 1 had held up their call-in interactive channel 9Live as the epitome of their non-advertising-based growth strategy.

But echoing a problem in the U.K. — where even the venerable BBC has been fined for fraud in phone-in quizzes — the format is facing similar accusations of manipulation, court battles, legal probes and an increasingly unfriendly tone from the European Court of Justice.

The once lucrative call-in quiz shows are now more of a headache than an asset. Could the format’s days be numbered?

The main revenue engine of ProSiebenSat1′s transaction TV division, 9Live offers interactive programming and erotic-themed quiz shows in which callers pay about 70¢ per call in the hopes of winning thousands of euros for answering frustratingly simple questions.

Last year 9Live generated $132 million toward ProSiebenSat1′s total revenue of $2.9 billion. Recognizing its potential, ProSiebenSat1 began hawking the 9Live format abroad, inking agreements with broadcasters in Spain, Turkey, Croatia and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp., which is seen in 23 countries throughout the Mideast and North Africa.

As part of the programming and service deals, 9Live produces the foreign-language shows at its Munich studios.

A technical goof during a recent 9Live show that gave the appearance of manipulation by the producers drew the attention of media regulators and angry critics and triggered calls for stricter regulation.

A legal spat between an Endemol subsidiary and an online critic of call-in formats hasn’t helped.

Callactive, an Endemol-owned production outfit, produces call-in formats for Viacom’s German outlets, tyke channel Nick, Comedy Central and music web Viva, which operate here as part of MTV Networks.

Callactive took Marcus Doehler to court earlier this year and won an injunction against his Internet forum, Call-in-TV.de, prohibiting the discussion of possible “plants” or “fake callers” who allegedly answer simple questions incorrectly. Forum users had accused producers of using such callers to make it more difficult for real participants to get through.

While Doehler is facing further legal action, the case has caused a public backlash against the channels and their “interactive” programming.

The popular call-in quiz format had spread like wildfire on rival channels following 9Live’s success. In addition to MTV Networks, EM.Sport Media’s “sports” channel DSF still devotes a significant portion of airtime to risqué quiz shows and erotic programming (last year it posted an operating profit of nearly $16 million — its best financial result ever).

Yet wide-reaching gaming legislation expected to be passed soon in Germany and a possible ruling from the European Court of Justice could seal the fate of most call-in channels.

German lawmakers look likely to make it more difficult for broadcasters to operate toll-financed call-in formats and may force channels to offer free quiz shows — which would likely put an end to the call-in format.

At the same time, a decision expected from the European Court of Justice may also make it tougher for toll-based interactive programming.

In a case examining TV services, the court is expected to rule that call-in programming constitutes “teleshopping” rather than regular TV programming, making it subject to stricter controls.

ProSiebenSat1, at least, appears to have seen the writing on the wall.

The group is scaling back its call-in programming on 9Live to introduce a three-hour block of femme-skewed primetime programming Monday through Friday.

If successful, 9Live could see a complete revamp into women’s outlet, which is exactly what it had been until 2001, when the femme-oriented TM3 became 9Live.

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