Brit gameshows pay price for phone snafus

LONDON — A year ago, Blighty terrestrial broadcaster ITV launched what, in these uncertain times, looked like a certain moneymaker.

Twelve months later, the coin continues to flow into the coffers of interactive games channel ITV Play, which screens on ITV 1 after midnight.

On average, every 75 seconds a Brit calls a premium phone line to play cash-prize quizzes.

This week, as ITV announces its first set of figures since executive chairman Michael Grade took over in January, the full extent of ITV Play’s highly lucrative business will be revealed.

The problem is that ITV Play risks becoming a PR disaster for the network. This is because a series of spats over premium line TV phone quizzes and services are threatening to damage the reputation of not only ITV, but also that of pubcasters Channel 4 and even the BBC.

“Programs are becoming vehicles for making money,” says Channel 4 founder Jeremy Isaacs, who put the channel at the top end of British TV when he ran it for six years from the station’s launch in 1982. “They aim to persuade viewers gullibly that they will win something. It’s a disgrace and it should be stamped out.”

Isaacs was commenting after Channel 4 flagship daytime show “Richard and Judy” became embroiled in a spat over its “You Say, We Pay” phone quiz in late February.

C4 was forced to pull the item and offered to refund the calls when it was alleged that viewers were being asked to call a $1.90-a-time quiz even though the winners had already been chosen.

The broadcaster, which last November shuttered its own phone-quiz channel Quiz Call, denied any wrongdoing despite suggestions the police may probe the show.

C4 said it and the show’s producers, Cactus TV, were “very serious” about following regulatory codes relating to premium-rate call services.

Just days later, BBC cooking show “Saturday Kitchen,” also made by Cactus, was criticized for misleading auds into phoning questions to celebrity chefs, even though the program had been recorded the previous week.

The BBC denied making money from the calls or conning viewers. A rep says questions were put to guests when the show was off air and callers were given the chance to appear on subsequent editions.

U.K. premium phone line regulator Icstis is investigating “Saturday Kitchen” for “misleading practices.”

Media regulator Ofcom rebuked ITV Play in January following audience complaints that one of the answers in “Quizzmania” was too obscure.

Viewers were asked to identify two items commonly found in women’s handbags. The correct answer was balaclava and Rawlplugs (used by British home improvement enthusiasts to plug holes in walls).

ITV claims that obscure answers have since been banned.

But despite claiming it operates ITV Play in a transparent way, the broadcaster refuses to disclose how many callers are put through.

Critics maintain that most premium quiz addicts are left hanging on the line — while those responsible for the shows pocket the profits. In other words, the quizzes are more lotteries than gameshows. “ITV Play has given away more than £10 million in prize money to 22,000 winners since it launched,” says an ITV spokeswoman.

Grade was said to be “disappointed” that the “Quizzmania” item — broadcast in September while he was still BBC chairman — criticized by Ofcom was allowed on air.

However, he is understood to appreciate ITV Play’s value as a revenue generator at a time when ITV’s advertising revenues are in decline.

“Grade is a realist,” says a U.K. TV exec. “He will be relieved that Channel 4 and ‘Richard and Judy’ are getting all the heat — and not ITV.”

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