UK Regulator to Probe TV Show Phone-In Charges

12 October 2006

LONDON: Growing concern by consumer organisations and politicians at the high charges levelled by high cost telephone lines has prompted UK premium rate regulator ICSTIS to launch an inquiry into the use of such lines by phone-in TV quiz shows - a wheeze known in the trade as Call-TV.

One of the best known such shows is ITV's much-copied format Who Wants to be A Millionaire?, produced by Celador and hosted by Chris Tarrant. On other many other channels there are me-too imitations. Even if unsuccessful, a call to such shows can cost an average £0.75 per minute, often much more.

Nor are quiz shows the only format to exploit this shabby ploy. It is routinely used in so-called reality shows like Channel 4's Big Brother where viewers call-in to vote on whether a contestant should be ousted from the programme. And there is a growing pandemic of premium rate phone-in TV prize draws.

Even the BBC is not immune to the Call-TV virus, although its inhouse guidelines state: "We should not normally use premium rate lines for phone-ins."

But where official approval is given to further milk BBC licence-payers . . . "We should normally ensure that premium rate calls are priced at the lowest tariff. They should not normally be used to generate a profit with the exception of BBC charity appeals."

According to ICSTIS, Britain has the biggest premium rate call market in the world, spending a cool £1.6 billion ($2.97bn; €2.37bn) annually - twice the USA total and equivalent to £35 for every adult in the UK.

In response to external pressures, the regulator is now demanding greater transparency to ensure callers know how much they are paying, and the likelihood of winning a prize.

In addition to belated action by ICSTIS, media regulator Ofcom is preparing guidance proposals on the use of premium rates in television programming.

Says an Ofcom spokesperson: "Any consultation will be with the intention to ensure that such channels are genuine editorial channels and not teleshopping by stealth."

Data sourced from BBC Online; additional content by WARC staff