'Deception' costs GMTV $4 mil

Daytime b'caster hit with big fine for phone-in scam

U.K. media regulator Ofcom has fined commercial broadcaster GMTV a record £2 million ($4 million) for what it calls "widespread and systematic deception" in premium-rate phone-in competitions.

GMTV, owned by 75% stakeholder ITV and Disney, was found to have breached the broadcasting code between August 2003 and February by not running phone-in competitions fairly and failing to keep proper control of the premium-rate phone services.

About 18 million viewers are thought to have entered competitions they had no chance of winning. And GMTV executives have admitted to picking competition finalists before lines were closed, meaning that substantial numbers of viewers who called in and paid entry fees of up to £1.80 ($3.60) stood no chance of being entered.

Ofcom said Wednesday that the case involved the "widespread and systematic deception of all those viewers who paid to enter in the belief that they had a fair chance of winning, when in fact their chances of winning were diminished or nonexistent."

GMTV accepted full responsibility for the scandal.

"As soon as we became aware of the problems, we took all premium-rate services off air and in July launched a series of comprehensive remedies to recompense our viewers," the broadcaster said. "We are offering refunds to disenfranchised entrants, and to date nearly 130,000 viewers have contacted our refund help line."

In addition to the fine, which matches the highest ever imposed, the regulator ordered GMTV to broadcast a summary of its findings on three separate occasions.