Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Last night's newspaper article...

The quiz shows continue here in the UK and journalists take notice. I've pasted the lengthy article:

Money for nothing

Interactive quiz channels are a lucrative new source of income for broadcasters. But James Silver asks if they are playing a dangerous game with vulnerable viewers?

Monday September 4, 2006
The Guardian

It is "Crazy Wednesday" on The Mint, ITV1's newly recommissioned overnight quiz show. One of the presenters, Beverley French, grins maniacally at the camera. "Look at the size of the prize ... £21,000!" Cue random canned cheering. "Just pick up the phone!" shouts French. A phone rings. "Hello, who's that?" A slightly befuddled voice replies: "Emma from South Wales."

Emma - and her estimated half a million fellow-viewers - have been challenged to come up with a well-known word or phrase which begins with the word "time". "Is it time-less?" French's smile droops. "It's not, I'm afraid." Instead, she plugs the premium-rate phone number for the umpteenth time. "It's triple money, seriously guys. If you've got an answer you need to call me right now. It's a mere 75p a call."

A terrifying-sounding Maggie from Manchester strikes out with "time-bomb", before Joan from Bolton scoops £3,000 by saying "time-off". French goes bananas. "You've just won three grand! Are you excited?" Joan sounds barely a notch above depressed. The camera then switches to the star of the show, a former Big Brother contestant, Brian Dowling, who has a curious orange tan. "£21,000 tax-free sterling pounds!" he reminds his public, while wrapping himself coquettishly around a bannister. "We're here till 4 o'clock this morning! Today is Crazy Wednesday! Tomorrow is Big Money Thursday!"

The truth is that every day is Big Money day for ITV Play, the arm of ITV responsible for The Mint, Quizmania and similar quiz shows. Since the channel launched in April on Freeview and Sky and, crucially, overnight on ITV1, it has proved a cash cow for the ailing broadcaster, with profits of £9m on revenues of £27m.

Babbling presenters

"ITV has a very successful track record in interactive mass-market shows, whether it's X Factor, Pop Idol or I'm A Celebrity, and we've embraced that and brought it to this genre," explains ITV Play's controller William van Rest. "We've given away £6m in prize money to 10,000 winners so far. [With The Mint] we're trying to raise the bar and commission the next generation of participation shows. What we're absolutely not doing is lowest-common-denominator TV."

And ITV is not alone among the major broadcasters in running a quiz channel. In his MacTaggart lecture at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television festival, Van Rest's outgoing boss Charles Allen drew attention to the fact that Channel 4 has also moved into interactive gaming. "C4 has owned and operated a gaming channel on the quiet for several years," he said. "When was the decision taken that the UK wanted or needed a nationalised gaming channel?"

Launched in August 2005, Quiz Call is owned by Ostrich Media, a subsidiary company of C4's commercial arm, 4Ventures, although it is not part of the C4 brand. The company has yet to release its first-year results, but its apparent success provides further evidence that such channels are extremely lucrative. "As part of its public service review last year, Ofcom recognised that C4's current business model, where we get most of our revenues from advertising, was under pressure," explains a C4 spokeswoman. "They charged 4Ventures to actively go and look at ways of generating commercial revenues. Off the back of that, 4Ventures set up Ostrich Media. It's not branded C4 as Quiz Call is a completely separate channel, targeting a very different audience to the main channel."

Now attracting a combined daily audience of about a million, quiz show formats are now booming in the UK. In the multichannel age, with an uncertain advertising climate, such programming provides a very useful alternative revenue stream for the big channels, says David Brook, chief executive of Optimistic Entertainment plc, which produces both participation and entertainment formats. "Most of the money at ITV, C4 and Channel Five is spent competing for ratings in peaktime. Participation programming is coming into its own elsewhere in the schedule because it's a different revenue model.

"The thing about it, as opposed to regular advertiser-funded TV, is that it doesn't matter about the total number of people watching, it's the number of active viewers who are taking part."

The elements of quiz TV programming are simple and cheap: babbling (mostly) unknown presenters, studio sets that would shame a nursery school art class, questions which, by and large, would not trouble even the most feeble-minded (one channel on Wednesday night featured a poster of The Flintstones and asked callers to name the film for a cash prize) and - most importantly - a relentlessly advertised premium-rate phone number, costing 60-75p per call.

Compulsive gamblers

I watched two hours of output (mostly on ITV1 and C4's Quiz Call), and the guidelines laid down by Ofcom - which specify that "competitions should be conducted fairly, prizes should be described accurately and rules should be clear and appropriately made known" - were observed. But if it is a "prize competition", open to all for the price of a phonecall, how easy is it to participate?

Not very easy at all, as it turns out. I placed a dozen calls at a cost of £9 to a variety of quiz channels - including four each to The Mint and Quiz Call. I never got further than a recorded message, which in the case of the former, said: "Welcome to The Mint where every call costs just 75p from a BT landline. Let's see if we can put you through to one of our studio phone lines. [A collective groan is heard.] Sorry, you didn't get through this time. But don't forget, you can now enter our weekly prize draw to win £1,000. All you need to do is call [an 0901 number] and answer a simple question about an ITV show. All calls to this number cost £1 from a BT landline. Please note you have been charged for this call."

Clear enough. However, critics of this type of programming claim that by offering an additional free way of entering the competitions via their websites - which is typically advertised on a ticker at the bottom of the screen, as well as intermittently by the hosts - broadcasters are taking advantage of a legal loophole which allows them to operate their quizzes as "prize competitions", when in fact they should be reclassified as lotteries and subject to laws governing gambling.

Earlier this year, the Treasury said that it was considering tightening the rules that apply to quiz shows, in part to protect compulsive gamblers. Experts say approximately 5% of gamblers exhibit signs of addiction and there is little doubt that, with the lure of big cash prizes and easy access via the telephone, such shows can appeal to them. This is illustrated by a posting a fortnight ago on the gambling charity GamCare's forum: "One night I went on a quiz TV show and, when it was 50p a go, made over 90 calls and got thru once and got it wrong [sic]!"

ITV Play's Van Rest acknowledges the risks to compulsive gamblers but emphasises he is doing everything possible to tackle them. "We insert messages into the telephone system so that if viewers make 20 phone calls, at the start of the call a voice warns that their number has made 20 calls - it's like a headmaster's voice over the tannoy and it repeats at 40, 60, 80 and 100 calls. Our customer services team ring people when we think there's an irregular call pattern. In the end, we're not looking for binge players. We're looking for the mass market who play a little on a regular basis."

TV quizzes involving the use of premium-rate phone lines are overseen by three watchdogs: Icstis, the premium rate services regulator, Ofcom and, since the 2005 Gambling Act, the Gambling Commission. A spokeswoman for Icstis denied reports last week that they were investigating quiz TV services. "We have had a very low level of complaints - about 80 so far this year about quiz television in general," she said. "Just to put it in context, for subscription services we had about 6,700." What did she make of my dozen failed attempts to get on air? "It is a game. You are taking part in a competition, so there's no guarantee you are going to get through."

The Gambling Commission has recently issued a consultation document that will seek to clarify the law around prize competitions and draws - including TV quiz shows. It is thought this will lead to the toughening up of regulations. "The law is unclear on the distinction between lotteries, prize competitions and free draws," Tom Kavanagh, the commission's deputy chief executive, said. "This results in some organisers running what may well be unregulated and unlicensed lotteries."

Crystal ball

A spokeswoman for Ofcom denied that they were specifically investigating this sector, adding that, although they have received in excess of 500 complaints about quiz programmes broadcast so far this year (which include complaints referred to Icstis), complaints appear to have tailed off since extra guidance was published in April. However, it is understood that the watchdog will be launching a consultation of its own later this year to ensure participation TV - including quiz shows - complies with the broadcasting code.

Meanwhile, it's hour two at The Mint and Brian is now caressing a crystal ball for no discernible reason. "It's Malcolm from the Wirral," says a gruff voice. "What's your answer, please?" asks Brian, somehow managing to sound like he cares. "Time-lord," guesses Malcolm, wrongly as it turns out. Another caller. "It's Jenny from Barnsley. Is it time-capsule?" Brian groans. "Oh Jenny," he says, "it'd better be." I know how he feels. On this occasion Jenny is unlucky, but it doesn't matter. There are plenty more where she came from.

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