So finally Deloitte’s report on premium rate services on ITV has been published. Well I say “published” but in fact, what we’re getting is an 11 page summary detailing failures on three specific programmes, and mentioning a number of other shows in passing.
Once again, it’s turned out that ITV producers and researchers were regularly defrauding the public of millions of pounds over an extended period of time. Sometimes this was because competitions had closed while presenters continued to urge viewers to vote (at a premium rate). In other instances, the various competition elements of peak time programmes like Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway and Ant & Dec’s Gameshow Marathon were not carried out fairly with researchers screening callers to look for people who “sounded lively” and then actually visiting them on pretexts to make sure that they were TV friendly (i.e. cheerful and not ugly).
In other instances, viewers who didn’t live within a certain distance of preordained areas of the country were removed from consideration.
There are the usual issues with votes not counted, and in one instance – Soapstar Superstar – the wrong contestants were put forward for eviction. Indeed this was a programme in which first, viewers voted for their favourites. Then, presented with the those with the fewest votes, another viewer vote was used to determine who left the show. And yet another viewer vote determined which song, the remaining contestants would perform in the next episode… except where producers overrode the viewers’ decision and made their own choices.
Maybe in a future series, viewers can vote for camera angles, or lighting designs? Which set should they use? What costume should the presenter wear in the next episode? The choices are endless.
There’s a great discussion going on over at Media Guardian’s Organ Grinder blog, with the general feeling being that what ITV and its various producers have been up to is actually criminal. Will the police investigate? Seemingly the police won’t investigate unless Ofcom ask them to, and Ofcom has to conduct its own investigation now. Maybe they can publish the full Deloitte report and not just the 11 page double-spaced summary.
ITV has busily set about promising viewers refunds on their phone bills. But as with GMTV before it, this seems to be a particularly complicated procedure requiring you to fill out a form and remember which shows you voted in as long as two years ago. If ITV is in possession of the numbers of those who voted, I fail to understand why a credit cannot be applied to those bills.
And even though it is promising to either return this money, or give the cash to charity, that’s not really enough is it? If I steal some cash from you and get caught, it’s no good me saying, “It’s a fair cop! You caught me. Here’s your money back, and I promise that I’ll try really hard not to do it again.” That probably wouldn’t satisfy either you, or the police.
There’s also some fun discussion about Ant and Dec’s role in these shows. The guys themselves are obviously feeling a bit bad about it and saying that they knew nothing about it and Michael Grade’s backing them up. But they did take Executive Producer roles on the shows and that should mean that they’re in quite a senior position on the show – they’re not just the hired talent. I believe that they actually came up with the Saturday Night Takeaway format. So should they take more responsibility. (See Media Guardian’s Diary for an industry definition of what an Executive Producer does.)
I’m sure that they never dirtied themselves in the detail of how competitions were carried out. But then maybe they shouldn’t take the Executive Producer credits. You can’t have it both ways.
As part of ITV’s remedies, they’re immediately suspending text and red-button voting from live programming. Of course they’re still asking trivial competition questions on their non-live programming: I refer you ‘Dickinson’s Real Deal’ – sample question that I was unfortunate enough to see yesterday “Complete the following phrase: Bull In A ———.” It was obviously a multiple choice question.
It’s all well and good saying that there’ll be new broom from now on; on a day in which the media news is obviously being led by the BBC’s major news about redundancies and the selling off of TV Centre (where do you send your media correspondent?), but that’s not enough. In fact, in many respects the ITV report is actually getting more attention than the BBC because, BBC dealings had been well telegraphed in advance.
Of course Ofcom will eventually hit ITV with a massive fine as they did to GMTV, but it still comes down to a public service broadcaster defrauding members of the public. It really does leave a very sour taste in the mouth.
Both Jon Snow and Jeremy Paxman yesterday gave ITV Executive Chairman Michael Grade a real grilling about whether there should be police charges following the defrauding of viewers. He really wriggled on the end of their lines, but didn’t make any concessions.
Today, The Guardian is reporting that ITV could face a fine of up to £70m. I assume that this is based on the “5% of qualifying revenue” basis, but I can’t quite get the figures to work out. Nonetheless, ITV must be worried.
One of the areas that Paxman gave Michael Grade a hard time over on Newsnight last night was the reason why it was such a complicated procedure for viewers to reclaim their cash from the various phone votes and competitions. Grade said that it was standard practice that consumers should proactively claim what was rightfully theirs. But there’s a difference between a retailer recalling a toy that they’ve sold, where there’s no record of who bought it, and a telephone call which has a distinct phone number – and therefore account – attached to it.
Maybe Grade didn’t know the answer at the time? Perhaps there’s a legal reason involving data protection laws, and ITV or the telecoms companies involved no longer hold the information. In which case, say so.
The rules regarding compensation are not straightforward, so it’s no wonder that Grade was suggesting it may cost ITV up to £2m to simply process them. Some of rules are incredibly complicated – for example ITV2+1 claims (where no “Lines Now Closed” caption appeared preventing callers entering competitions that had already ended): “Only affects limited dates between certain times where banner advising that the competition was closed was omitted on ITV2 + 1 catch-up channel.”
Let’s face it, if you were one of those callers, you’ll have absolutely no idea whether you should claim or not. And only a limited number of X-Factor votes are involved. If you’re an infrequent voter on the show, there’s no way you’ll know whether or not you have a valid claim. You’ll need a remarkable memory to be certain, or be a vigilant collector of old telephone bills.
If someone could explain why the calls could not simply be recredited, then I’d love to know. Some accounts may have expired or become dormant, but for the most part it could surely be performed automatically.
Incidentally, the front page of ITV’s website has a link to the claim procedure as it should, but it’s not at all clear to the consumer that this is what it is.
“Click here for more information on measures to reimburse consumers for PRS failures.”
If you’re not up on arcane television terminology, then that’s going to be completely meaningless to the average viewer. As a keen media watcher myself, I associate PRS with the company who collect music rights. Google “PRS” and you’ll have to scroll down before you see a link to Ofcom’s “Premium Rate Services” page.
ITV, I know that this is a massive embarrassment, but there’s no point in trying to hide it away. At least GMTV’s homepage has a clear “Competitions Announcement.” Although of course GMTV similarly made viewers go through a claims process to reclaim the cash they’d wasted on their competitions.
Grade has talked a lot about regaining trust, but part of that is surely making it easy for consumers to reclaim what is rightfully their’s.
In related developments, the Serious Fraud Office is reviewing evidence in the GMTV case to see whether a criminal investigation should begin.