Call-in hangups

U.K. scandal has regulators, b'casters worldwide on alert

The quiz show scam of the late 1950s forever changed the face of American TV. Nowadays, it's the international TV biz that's feeling the heat of scandal, with top executives and regulators in high dudgeon, irate viewers clamoring for a cleanup and producers of programming scrambling to patch things up.

Unlike the quaint fraud of the '50s, in which contestants in the U.S. were fed the answers to difficult questions ahead of time, the current shenanigans center on high-tech — and for broadcasters, highly lucrative — call-in quiz shows, with the key issue being whether viewers have been paying hundreds of millions of dollars to enter competitions that they could never win.

And because the call-in TV genre is widespread globally, international broadcasters and regulators are concerned that the deception that has decimated viewer trust in the U.K. could show up in their backyards.

The disclosures began in Britain in February with the Channel 4 show "You Say We Pay," and it has since emerged that that producers across all the country's top channels — the BBC, Channel 4, Five and ITV — also had deceived viewers. Producers have admitted to faking winners of phone-in competitions, encouraging viewers to call in to competitions that already were closed and pretending to be winning competition entrants.

The revelations have sent shock waves through British broadcasting, and media regulator Ofcom and premium phone regulator Icstis have launched show-by-show reviews of call-TV shows going back as far as 2002.

Fines on the BBC, Channel 4 and Five already have been imposed for some shows, but nervous executives are still awaiting the verdict on such ratings blockbusters as ITV's "X Factor" and Channel 4's "Big Brother," and there is a real sense that senior heads will roll. The managing director of breakfast show broadcaster GMTV, which is thought to have earned as much as £40 million over four years from call-TV competitions, already has been forced to quit over the scandal.

The even trickier issue of how to hand back what could run into hundreds of millions of dollars to irate viewers also has yet to be officially decided. That the scandal has sullied some of the U.K.'s highest-profile charity shows, including Children in Need and Comic Relief, has only added to the sense of disbelief at the emerging scale of the deception.

"We are dealing with errant behavior, with dishonest judgments made at different levels," said ITV executive chairman Michael Grade, who admitted to Parliament in July that the problem might be of "epidemic" proportions.

"We have realized that there is a body of people working in broadcasting who do not know there is a line you do not cross," he told the media select committee.

Grade, who joined ITV in January, has promised a "zero tolerance" response to deception and promised that ITV will follow the BBC's decision to refuse to work with independent producers found guilty of misleading viewers.

Meanwhile, regulators and broadcasters worldwide are keeping a close watch on the U.K. situation. In some cases, they assert that no taint of scandal has affected their territories; in others, moves are quickly being made to address the problem before it gets out of hand.

"That the fraud in the U.K. was so widespread and so deliberate was a surprise," said Barbara Beck, a legal expert at German state media authority LMK. "We suspect there are individual abuses of this sort in Germany, but we have no concrete evidence that this is happening here."

The genre is governed by strict rules, and German state regulators in June again tightened guidelines for call-in shows after complaints by viewers and consumer groups. Broadcasters now must demonstrate that on-air games are fair, that cash prizes are paid out and that viewers are not misled.

While Beck hopes that the U.K. scandals do not spread to other countries, she warns that national regulators need to remain vigilant.

"I would never accuse any broadcaster of deliberately misleading their viewers," Beck said. "But with these shows it is always a danger because it is so easy to do and so easy to make money doing it."

The king of the German call-in shows is RTL's "Deutschland sucht den Superstar," the local version of "Pop Idol," which is estimated to have hauled in revenue of almost $17 million from calls this past season. But in terms of audience deception, it appears so far to have been beyond reproach.

Call-in TV also hit the headlines in Russia late last year after a growing number of complaints from viewers who ran up steep telephone bills trying to call in to on-air competitions offering prizes that run into the thousands of dollars.

Clever on-air pitches to attract viewers to dial in on premium-rate phone lines charging up to $1.50 a minute attracted criticism after it was revealed that fewer than 1 in 100 had a chance of getting through to participate in live on-air competitions like entertainment network TNT's "Dengi na provode" (Money on the Phone).

Broadcast legislation designed to police traditional — not interactive — television provided producers with generous loopholes for avoiding accusations of gambling, which is restricted under Russian law.

Ilya Muratov, a spokesman for TV3, a Moscow-based network that airs the live afternoon show "Kult Nalichnosty" (Cash Cult), stressed that editorial procedures are closely monitored.

"The show is absolutely legal and absolutely honest. We ensure that winners always get their prizes," Muratov said, adding that in the past the show had been screened in primetime but was moved to its late-night slot this year because of what the network said was poor ratings.

In Italy, call-in TV was popular in the early part of the decade, with about a half-dozen programs on Mediaset and at least two on pubcaster RAI, but the trend has faded in recent years as reality TV has grown in profile. But the scandal in the U.K. has alerted Italian authorities to the possibility of potential fraud.

"We remain alert to what might happen in Italy because any kind of cheating is possible," an Italian communications ministry spokesman said. He also pointed out that regulators have been lobbying the government for increased powers and staff to investigate any potential call-in TV fraud.

Meanwhile, authorities in Belgium already have tightened the screws on such high-tech interactive antics. In fact, the country claims to have the strictest rules in Europe on call-TV systems, including independent monitor-ing mechanisms, text-message alerts for customers and stiff penalties for broadcasters.

A royal decree allowing such games was signed in October and came into force in January. The regulation of call-in TV is now split between Flemish and Francophone regulators as well as the Belgian Gaming Commission.

"When these programs first emerged a few years ago, we received complaints from callers about the call prices, about how the quizzes appeared to be trick questions and about how they thought they had won prizes but never received them," said Jean-Francois Furnemont, director of Francophone broadcasting regulator CSA.

"The new legislation means that any call-in TV program needs to be cleared by the gaming commission. We get involved with concerns about the content of programs, while the gaming commission deals with the commercial elements involved in setting up the calling systems."

Just last week, the Dutch government said it is drawing up new legal remedies — including fines for errant producers — to combat wrongdoing in the call-in TV arena. Dutch Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin has put together a set of demands to limit the number of call-in TV shows, the length of the broadcasts and the amount of prize money. Currently, the main commercial broadcasters — RTL4, SBS, Net5 and Tien — air about 15 hours a day of such shows.

China also is not immune. A program titled "Super Girls" spurred a rise in the popularity of the genre, which in turn drew attention from central government media regulators concerned about corruption surrounding the hit shows from provincial stations.

"The 'Super Girl' story was different from the BBC scandal," said Anke Redl, director of Beijing-based consultancy China Media Monitor Intelligence. "Viewers were not calling in for prizes but were messaging to vote for their favorite singer. However, there is a general crackdown happening on interactive television games."

In the the call-in shows aired on Chinese television, the programs hope to entice viewers to send short messages for word puzzles and quizzes in order to win prizes. Following a spate of recent local press reports noting the exorbitant charges on mobile users' bills, as well as some investigations on how remote the chances of winning any prizes were, the Ministry of Information recently announced that all service providers must "stop irregular activities" immediately, Redl said.

"It remains to be seen what this will entail and for how long it will hold," she said.

In general, Chinese telecom operators, which are government entities and therefore subject to political as well as financial pressure, are "toeing the line on this one," Redl said.

The country's four telcos — China Mobile, China Unicom, China Netcom and China Telecom — recently issued an edict requiring all their service providers not to engage in interactive TV games in which the users have little chance of actually winning prizes.

Broadcasters worldwide have been eager to leap on the call-TV bandwagon, which has proved to be a license to print money at a time when advertising revenue is being squeezed. But the tidal wave of tawdry revelations emerging from the U.K. has spurred a global tightening of procedures as well as the fervent hope that such toxic outflow will not wash up on other shores.

Mimi Turner reported from London; Scott Roxborough reported from Cologne, Germany. Nick Holdsworth in Moscow, Eric J. Lyman in Rome, Leo Cendrowicz in Brussels and Jonathan Landreth in Beijing contributed to this report.