An informed choice? 

10 December 2006

Transcript of the proceedings

This evening on the BBC Parliament channel there was coverage of a Culture, Media and Sport committee meeting that discussed various aspects of the regulation of quiz TV channels as part of an ongoing inquiry into this part of the broadcasting industry.

Various media representatives such as the controller of ITV Play as well as representatives from other channels (Channel 4 – Quiz Call, Fremantle Media – Quizmania, etc.) were questioned by ministers relating to various aspects of their industry, along with a separate discussion with representatives from each of the three regulators that are involved.

A major issue with quiz TV channels relates to whether or not the participants are truly making an informed choice when they take part in the game(s) being offered; this relates to the amount of information being displayed relating to call charges and whether the participant is also aware of a free method of entry (as required to avoid breaching the current gambling laws).

Often the call charges (and details of the free method of entry) are displayed intermittently or in smaller characters relative to the question and/or any possible answer(s) on display, which could allude to an attempt to deceive as many viewers as possible into calling a premium rate phone number (“there is a natural instinct to use the telephone”).

There is also the issue of whether or not quiz TV participants are fully aware of the odds involved in winning a competition, and it can be misleading (either intentionally or otherwise) when it appears that nobody is calling the quiz TV channel for several minutes. As was pointed out, the odds can vary wildly depending on the time of day and the nature of the question.

When pressed on the requirement for broadcasters to be transparent in the way that such quiz TV channels are run, the Culture, Media and Sport minister Shaun Woodward was of the opinion that action would be taken if there was enough evidence to support it but he seemed to think that self-regulation was the best option for this fast-growing industry.

He added that self-regulation is much quicker to implement than Acts of Parliament, but it has to be said that when there is a strong temptation to make money then self-regulation often tends to get ignored, especially when the regulators seem reluctant to intervene at present and seem to be waiting for someone else to tell them what to do.

However Shaun Woodward seemed to dodge the fundamental issue of whether the regulators are doing their job properly when confronted with possible evidence relating to broadcasters deliberately misleading viewers in terms of the odds of getting a call answered, preferring instead to wait for evidence as to whether or not there is a major problem.

If a serious regulatory breach has occurred then it is up to Ofcom (and ICSTIS) to do something about it here and now otherwise they aren’t doing their jobs properly. (As Shaun Woodward was forced to agree with when pressed on this issue, but if true this could be used as a powerful argument against self-regulation.)

It’s ironic that Shaun Woodward was once a producer for the long-running BBC television programme That’s Life, which spent many years campaigning for tighter regulation in many areas of society in order to protect consumer interests, whereas he now superficially appears to be against tighter regulation even before any conclusion(s) have been reached.

He seemed to imply that it was self-regulation versus waiting for draconian Acts of Parliament, but the third way of forcing regulators such as Ofcom and ICSTIS to take greater responsibilty for issues like this one and for them to make their own informed decisions seemed to be all but ignored during the proceedings.

One significant problem at present is that premium rate phone lines are regulated by a different body (ICSTIS) to that of the actual programme content (Ofcom). ICSTIS has access to such things as call logs which Ofcom doesn’t, but those call logs provide vital statistics that Ofcom should have access to; this problem needs to be urgently addressed.

Then there’s the problem of gambling addiction; it was pointed out that charging a premium rate for callers who have been barred from a TV quiz channel because they have exceeded the permitted number of calls is technically fraud and at present there isn’t a mechanism used to prevent premium rate charging for such calls.

Let’s hope that some decisive action is taken to properly regulate quiz TV channels, since self-regulation is much more likely to fail with so much money at stake.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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David Hastings Contact More by me