Is the UK public about to pull the plug on the lucrative call-quiz TV market? It's fair to say that the last couple of weeks will have seen some anxious conversations between television executives and their accountants.
Many of us have been tempted to enter TV quizzes via a premium rate telephone number, knowing that we have a small chance of being selected to answer a question that could win us thousands of pounds. However, recent negative publicity surrounding premium rate ‘competitions’ has hit viewer participation and the interactive media industry is feeling the effects.
High-profile incidents involving Channel 4's Richard and Judy show, BBC's Saturday Kitchen programme and ITV's X Factor led ICSTIS, the premium rate telephone services watchdog, to hold an urgent meeting this week with leading broadcasters and their service partners to agree what steps can be taken to restore customer trust in the sector.
ITV recently suspended all of its phone-in polls and competitions while an independent security audit is carried out of its premium rate interactive services. ICSTIS and industry representatives have also agreed a number of actions including: a review by all broadcasters or current and forthcoming participation TV programmes; more rigorous monitoring by ICSTIS; clearer rules of entry; a licensing regime for all premium rate service providers operating participation TV services; broadcasters demonstrating compliance with ICSTIS codes of practice; looking at introducing a trust mark or quality standard for services as well as ICSTIS engaging in ongoing dialogue with the industry to ensure compliance.
Aside from established television shows which, as recently highlighted, may have been running questionable competitions, hours and hours of broadcasting time is increasingly being handed over to Quiz TV, with late night phone-ins saturating commercial channels.
The industry is not without its critics. Some operators are accused of failing to warn viewers that they will be charged even if they do not make it through to the game, or running quizzes with deliberately ambiguous questions to keep people ringing back. But these problems have done little to hold back the growth of Quiz TV shows and companies behind the contests, it seems, have been sitting on a goldmine.
In the UK, games of chance, such as roulette or card games, where the public pay to take part are strictly regulated. Games of skill are less tightly controlled – which leaves one key question – is Quiz TV a game of chance, or skill?
In response to a large and growing number of complaints regarding Quiz TV shows, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee published a report on the sector in January 2007. It criticises such shows for their "lack of fairness and transparency" and argues that Quiz TV shows should be subject to the same controls as other forms of gambling.
The communications regulator, Ofcom is currently considering whether to classify Quiz TV shows as advertising, which would result in restrictions on airtime, or classifying quizzes where "no-brainer" questions are used as bait to encourage viewers to call premium rate phone lines as ‘lotteries’ under the 2005 Gambling Act.
Significantly, the Gambling Commission has warned recently that operators of such quizzes may have to be classed as lotteries (requiring a licence to operate legally and in some cases services contributing some of their earnings charity) or ensure that they operate legally either as games of skill or as free to enter contests.
Whatever happens, it is clear that many viewers, aware of the long odds they are up against have decided to hang up on call TV quizzes, for good.
Kenneth Mullen is a partner specialising in Media and Technology with UK law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn.