One Born Every Minute (or ‘The premium rate phone scandal, continued.’) 

20 July 2008

The recent spate of premium-rate telephone scandals has brought the wrath of Ofcom on many broadcasting heads, to say nothing of shame and financial penalties. One practice that seems to have escaped Ofcom’s vigilance, however, is Channel Five’s habit of running quizzes after shows that a five-year-old who had been paying attention could answer.

Following episodes of certain drama shows (to the author’s knowledge, NCIS and CSI:NY have both been accorded this treatment) the delightful Trish Bertram or another Five continuity announcer will ask a question with three possible answers, and invite any viewers who think they know the correct one to ring a telephone number. Typically, it goes something like:

What is Google best known for? Is it

a) Web services

b) Industrial manufacturing

c) Food recipes

If you think you know the answer (ha!) ring 09012 345678 with your answer for a chance to win £5,000 in our prize draw. Don’t worry, calls cost only £1 per entry from a BT landline; expect your mobile operator to charge considerably more.

Now, you might think to yourself, great! I’ve won. Google’s bread-and-butter is web services (in the general sense of services such as search, e-mail and documents that are accessed by humans over the web, not to be confused with the W3C’s concept of Web Services to enable computer-to-computer automation); I need only phone in and the five grand’s mine.

Except that it isn’t. If you know the answer that well, are not others likely to also? This shows up Five’s after-the-show competitions for what they are: cash cows designed to milk money from eager callers who think they must have won because they’ve got the answer right. The questions and answers are simple because someone is far more likely to phone in if they think they knows the answer.

Let’s take NCIS as an example. One of the more enjoyable of the cop/forensic show derivatives, our intrepid band of detectives with the Navy Criminal Investigative Service had to work out in one episode how a man could lead two federal agents into a booby-trapped building (the booby trap in this case being the apparatus strapped to the suicide bomber’s chest), only for the team to conclude that he’d been dead at least 24 hours before the bomb went off.

It turns out that the person they saw entering the building was not the person who they found afterwards. The agent provocateur entered, followed by two NCIS guys. They both died when the bomb went off, and when the body parts of a third man were found, a leg here, an arm there, the torso and… er, better duck. I said duck, dammit!

Owwwwwwww! What just hit me?

Oh, you found his head, then. So that’s where it went. Pushed through the ceiling by the force of the blast. Trouble is, the post-mortem found that he’d already been dead for a day when his body was dismembered. He was innocent of any complicity in this crime. He’d been killed in advance, rigged up with the IED (army speak for improvised explosive device; that’s bomb to you and me); the agent provocateur enters, vanishes through the wall, the federal agents enter, and… BOOOOOOOM!

The building and the adjacent one had been used for some sort of magic show years ago, and the wall had a secret opening to the room next door. And guess what the question was? “How did the bomber escape?” Been paying attention? Here’s an easy one: have you actually seen the programme? Yes? Good, then you’ll have no trouble answering this question. Dial the number, there’s a good chap. Get the right answer and into the prize draw with you. Only a quid; best phone call you’ll ever make. There’s one born every minute.

The simplicity of the question gives it away. That, and the fact that you are told explicitly you can’t enter by e-mail or text message. Hobson’s choice – the phone or nowt. It is a tried and tested tactic: easy questions and premium rate phone lines equal lots of callers and lots of money. The more people think they’ve got the right answer, the more likely they are to phone. The £ signs light up in their eyes, and the cash register keeps pealing. Mugs.

Legally, this may be above board in a way that some of the high-profile scandals last year were not, but it is definitely something that Ofcom should look into.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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