Call TV: No Fair Play!

22 March 2007

The last two weeks have seen the integrity of Call TV, or "participation television," dismantled, amid allegations of fraud and inadequate consumer protection.

Dutch RTL Group director Fons van Westerloo, for example, has seen two cases of swindling on participation programming broadcast on his television channels, which are produced by Endemol, the United Kingdom's largest independent production company.

Cheating was also on display during a phone-in on the Flemish television channel, VTM. The case was so clear that the female presenter was threatened by thousands of viewers and the police had to protect her.

Concern has also centered on the United Kingdom's Channel Five and its show, Brainteaser, produced by Cheetah Television, an Endemol subsidiary. Five suspended the show from March 8.

Shortly after Brainteaser's suspension, Endemol released a prepared statement noting its support of the suspension and efforts to rectify the situation.

The British police have subsequently started an investigation into Call TV, though the Times said this week that trouble has come partially as a result of the police not allocating adequate resources to investigating the issue.

Quiz shows are not new and have been a staple of television and radio programming for roughly 20 years. The Dutch broadcaster, Veronica, began airing Call TV in 1995, and over the last two years has become popular throughout Europe, having been described as a "money printing machine."

The major producers of participation television programming include: Optimistic Media Ltd., which floated on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) of the LSE in January 2005; Endemol, which floated on Euronext Amsterdam in November 2005; and 2WayTraffic, which floated on the AIM in April 2006.

The U.K. Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Jan. 25 published a report entitled “Call TV quiz shows (HC 72)" which among other things describes the traditional format for the shows.

The viewer calls or texts a premium rate service with the answer to a question, and the winning participant is the one selected at random from the pool of those who have answered correctly. Call TV quizzes shows differ in one important respect: the random selection is made before any participant has a chance to answer the question. To win a prize, a person has to succeed in being connected to the studio and then in giving a correct answer.

The games themselves vary widely. Viewers may simply be asked to solve an anagram; in some cases the reordering of letters is minimal. Some puzzles require competitors to add figures and give the total. In others, commonly known as tower games, a word is shown on-screen (such as “red”). Producers next draw up a selection of words connected to the displayed word (such as “letter,” “rose” or “line”) but conceal the list. Participants are then invited to guess one of the connected words from the concealed list.

Regulatory oversight in the United Kingdom has been complicated by the uncertain status of Call TV quiz shows under existing gambling policies, which are soon to be replaced by the Gambling Act 2005. Once the Act is in force, it will be left to the Gambling Commission to establish, through the courts if necessary, whether Call TV quiz shows are free draws, lotteries or gaming.

Mediatique, a research firm specializing in media industries, estimates the Call TV industry in 2005 generated £80 million in the United Kingdom, and forecast compound growth of 33 percent per year until 2010, when it projects some £320 million to be generated.

So far, ITV has supplied the only hard figures for Call TV quiz shows, reporting its ITV Play channel in the first six months of 2006 generated £27 million, with £9 million in profits. ITV has projected that ITV Play could generate as much as £20 million in profits from £60 million in revenue in its first year--a £55,000 profit for every day of operation!

The Royal Decree of Oct. 10, 2006 regulates TV gaming programs in Belgium. In the Netherlands promotional games of chance may only serve to promote a product, service or organization and must not be offered as an independent activity.

After numerous allegations of fraud, the Call TV industry must re-establish trust with its consumers; then, they'll be more likely to return.

Rob van der Gaast has a background in sports journalism. He worked for over seven years as the head of sports for Dutch National Radio and has developed new concepts for the TV and the gambling industry. Now he operates from Istanbul as an independent gambling research analyst. He specializes in European gambling matters and in privatizations of gambling operators. Rob has contributed to IGN since Jul 09, 2001.