1-900-FRAUD: Call-in shows a 'grim mess'

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Premium phone-line regulator ICSTIS has unveiled a raft of proposals aimed at restoring viewer confidence in the scandal-ridden genre of participation television, where viewers phone in to vote in quizzes or competitions.

The move, first revealed Wed-nesday, comes after the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five have all been forced to apologize to viewers after it emerged that they were being encouraged to pay to vote in competitions that had already been closed and that made-up winners were being announced.

Describing some of the activities revealed as "semi-fraudulent," ICSTIS chairman Alastair Graham has given broadcasters two weeks to respond to a slew of allegations of inconsistencies and compliance abuses relating to the use of premium phone lines in such shows as ITV's "The X Factor," Channel 4's "Richard and Judy: You Say We Pay" and Five show "Brainteaser."

Graham warned that though no evidence of a cover-up had emerged, any evidence of criminality would be reported to the police.

"I am anxious that we sort out this pretty grim mess that the broadcast companies have got themselves into," he said in an interview with the BBC.

"We need something fairly quick to try to restore consumer confidence in this area and then perhaps a longer-term solution, which may be us running some sort of license arrangement or some kite mark — something that can give confidence that if you are going to use a premium-rate telephone line in a television program, you are not going to be ripped off."

The growing scandal, which first emerged two weeks ago with Channel 4 show "You Say We Pay," has quickly spread to other broadcasters.

On Thursday, Five chief executive Jane Lighting was forced to apologize to viewers after it emerged that fictitious winners in its show "Brainteaser" had been announced and that members of the production team had pretended to be contestants.

"We are shocked and disappointed and wish to apologize unreservedly to our viewers," she said. "The production company involved has failed to meet the high standards we demand of our suppliers. We have decided to suspend any output that involves any premium-rate services and to appoint an external auditor."

Earlier in the week, ITV executive chairman Michael Grade was forced to defend quiz channel ITV Play after it emerged that problems with the service could date back as long as two years.

Grade said ITV Play will not return to air until it has been cleared by external auditors, but he maintained that viewers are in favor of the participation genre.

ITV Play delivered profits of £24 million on revenue of £54 million last year.
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