The Government will ban television premium rate phone-ins if the industry cannot better regulate itself, broadcasting minister Shaun Woodward has warned.
Woodward said that the Government takes the spate of recent mistakes and breaches of regulators' codes "very seriously", and that it would ban the use of the numbers for TV quizzes if the industry and regulators could not effect change.
"In the same way the advertising of children's junk food was banned, we would be prepared to do the same here, though of course I would much rather that it didn't come to that and that the broadcasters got their own house in order," Woodward said, addressing the Broadcasting Press Guild.
Recent premium rate scandals have involved votes for programmes going uncounted, potential participants being encouraged to call expensive phone lines when finalists had been chosen and they had no chance of winning, and a child visiting a television studio pretending to be a winning telephone contestant.
Quizzes and premium rate phone-ins, which can cost as much as £1.80 to call, are regulated by overall media regulator Ofcom and premium rate phone line regulator ICSTIS (Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of the Telephone Information Services).
In response to the scandals, ICSTIS has changed its Code of Practice to put stricter obligations on TV companies using premium rate lines. Callers to programmes must now be told how many others are calling the programme so that they can assess their chances of getting on air to win prizes.
Callers must also be told over the phone each time their spending reaches £10 in one day, and on-air announcers must remind viewers of the cost of calling at 10 minute intervals.
“We believe these new measures, which are designed to address the concerns that have been raised recently, will go a long way to restoring consumer trust in this form of TV quiz," said ICSTIS chief executive George Kidd last week when the changes took effect. "We have worked closely with Ofcom, broadcasters, programme makers and telephone companies, who have all been supportive in making sure that the changes could be introduced as soon as possible.”
Premium rate lines have become a vital lifeline for broadcasters who have faced falling advertising income in recent years. ITV has cancelled its ITV Play station, which was devoted to call in shows, despite the fact that it earned £26 million in its last six months.
The quizzes ran into trouble, though, when it emerged that callers to Channel 4's Richard and Judy Show were being encouraged to call £1 a minute phone lines even after finalists – the only people in with a chance of winning – had been chosen.
A rash of revelations followed, involving many of television's most popular programmes. X Factor, Dancing on Ice, I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway and GMTV all discovered discrepancies or errors in their premium rate phone lines.