Archive: premium-rate

Years ago, this blog had a little button on it. Where today you see little logos for Amnesty International and No2ID, there used to be a button that said “I believe in the BBC”. It was to back this campaign, which was one of the things that got me hooked on blogging. I couldn’t believe how much of a stitch-up the Hutton Report seemed, and I wanted to stand up for what was the best broadcaster in the UK.

Some time during the intervening five years I removed the button from my blog. I had decided that I actually don’t really believe in the BBC. Of course, over time I have become more and more disillusioned with the mainstream media in general, and my opinion of the BBC has fallen south along with the rest of the mainstream media.

But I have found myself becoming particularly frustrated with the BBC’s apparent fear of its own shadow. It is pretty clear that this neurotic period of the BBC’s history began with the Hutton Report, and has been more recently exacerbated by a never-ending stream of overblown tabloid-generated nowtrage.

Of course, the lame tabloid stone-throwing is practically as old as the BBC itself. The difference is that after the Hutton Report, the BBC has appeared to actually believe that the tabloids have a point. What we needed after Hutton was a BBC that stood its ground and believed in its principles. Instead, it has become a blundering, self-loathing embarrassment; a stumbling colossus.

Nowadays, if a tabloid kicks up a bit of a fuss over, say, a bit of post-watershed swearing, the BBC doesn’t roll its eyes and ignore it like the majority of its viewers and listeners do. Instead, it trumps the tabloids, immediately making it the top story in all of its bulletins.

BBC News journalists then begin conducting fierce two-ways with BBC managers, and viewers are treated to a bizarre self-flagellation session lasting several days. The BBC sternly questions the BBC about its own outrageous conduct. After several days or even weeks have passed it quietly snaps out of it — only for another scandal to come along and the whole cycle begins again.

Take the television fakery scandals that engulfed the BBC a couple of years ago. Somehow, the fact that Blue Peter changed the name of a cat became the most shocking thing ever and threatened the very future of the BBC. I knew that because the BBC itself kept on saying so.

The fact that the commercial broadcasters had spent the previous few years building an entire genre of programming — the late night phone-in quiz programme — that was dedicated to deviously extracting cash from its viewers got swept under the carpet. Everybody was too busy watching the BBC break down in what you might call a Cookie crumble.

It was right that the BBC made changes following the scandals. But the difference in approach between the commercial broadcasters and the BBC was huge. Premium rate competitions were quick to make a return on commercial channels, with a bit more small print. But on the BBC, to this day the world “competition” is practically a swear word. Pre-recorded radio programmes are littered with apologies and warnings about the fact. The BBC’s paranoid fear of another scandal is getting in the way of its programming.

Then there is the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brandwagon, when the BBC inexplicably allowed a rather rude phone call dominate the news agenda for several days. While the economy was actually collapsing, the BBC almost willed itself on to implosion. When a bold BBC should have been responsibly reporting important news (which there was plenty of), instead the nervy BBC we’ve got occupied itself by poking its navel.

I found the BBC’s reaction quite seriously worrying. Even though the phone calls were a bit over the line, the reaction was completely out of proportion. And it has the potential to set a worrying trend, for the reasons Charlie Brooker pointed out.

The BBC is surely supposed to be there to do things that commercial broadcasters are either unable or unwilling to do. By definition, this means making challenging programming — programming that might not meet with popular approval. And in comedy in particular, that means pushing the boundaries.

The BBC’s decision to wave the white flag over the Russell Brand hoo-ha was basically a conscious decision to undermine the principles by which the BBC is supposed to exist. It follows that if the BBC believes it shouldn’t make distinctive comedy programming, why should it make distinctive programming at all?

The result is that we now have a BBC which is paralysed by a fear of criticism. It has become too self-conscious, and when the spotlight is on it nervously stumbles around. It’s not exactly the BBC we’re all supposed to be proud of.

The latest scandal to hit the BBC, over the DEC’s Gaza appeal broadcast, exhibits the BBC’s fear well. Knowing that the Israel–Palestine issue is so thorny, particularly given the right wing’s frequent criticism of the BBC’s coverage, it was caught like a rabbit in the headlights.

The first of the justifications given by Mark Thompson for choosing not to broadcast the appeal is that aid might not be delivered properly. That would be fair enough. It would be strange, though, if the BBC knew better about this than the DEC, a group comprising of thirteen charities dedicated to delivering aid properly.

The other (“more fundamental”) justification was the fear that the BBC might be seen to be impartial. It’s interesting to note that Mark Thompson never says that broadcasting the appeal actually would undermine the BBC’s impartiality. He is just concerned about the perception.

The BBC is perfectly entitled to decline to broadcast a DEC appeal. But the fact that it has allowed its fear of the public’s reaction to get in the way is worrying. It is yet another sign that the BBC is no longer prepared to be the bold public service broadcaster it’s supposed to be. And, of course, it brought a fresh round of awkward interviews between BBC journalists and BBC bosses.

It all makes for uncomfortable viewing and listening. It is clear that just now the BBC has very little belief in itself. So how should license fee payers be expected to believe in it?

Well after the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony was deemed to be impressive (apparently), it was hard to escape the self-pitying among Brits. “You just know ours will be rubbish compared to this.”

Well it transpires that London 2012 will be okay after all. Just a day after it emerged that fireworks were faked for the television audience, it has been revealed that a pretty singer was actually miming. Apparently the girl who actually did sing munted a bit was not as flawless.

This is great news for the Brits! Because if there is one thing our media excels at (except for ridiculous hyperbole and a breathtaking disregard for privacy) it is fakery. All we need to do now is put Ant and Dec in charge of the fireworks and Liz Kershaw in charge of the music. Shoehorn in a premium rate phone-in competition somewhere and it will be brilliant.

Last week The Jeremy Kyle Show was branded as a human form of bear-baiting by District Judge Alan Berg. He is probably quite right. I say “probably”, because I have not actually sat down and watched a full episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show. The man’s demeanour is enough to put you off after just a few seconds.

I was going to say that it is not a surprise that The Jeremy Kyle Show should be compared to bear-baiting. Modern-day freakshow is how I usually describe these programmes. The predecessors to Jeremy Kyle (Trisha and Vanessa) were mostly the same. Some — interestingly enough, mostly the American ones — can be sympathetic to the programme’s participants. But Tampon Teabag’s summary suggests that Jeremy Kyle is by far the most despicable example of the genre.

Most of the time these programmes pluck out the most grotesque failures of humanity and plonk them under the spotlight for the rest of the nation to point and laugh at. I suspect the main reason for these programmes’ success is that it allows the utter failures that watch daytime television feel slightly better about themselves.

For me, though, the interesting aspect of this story is the fact that the programme’s sponsors only felt the need to pull out of the deal after District Judge Berg made his comments. Some are revelling in the fact that it was a publicly-funded organisation — Ufi’s Learndirect.

But let us be fair here. Most of Learndirect’s target audience probably watches Jeremy Kyle, because it is a programme for thick economically inactive people. So this was probably the most cost-effective way to get their message out.

But it’s the hypocrisy that gets me about it. Ufi’s response has basically been: “What? You mean to say that The Jeremy Kyle Show is a modern-day equivalent of cock fighting, but with chavs instead of cocks? I am shocked, just shocked!” Nobody who has seen these programmes before should be so surprised.

The real reason Ufi have pulled out is, of course, because the spotlight turned to them. The same happened when Carphone Warehouse pulled out of sponsoring Celebrity Big Brother in the wake of the Shilpa Shetty / Jade Goody controversy. They said they pulled out because they couldn’t condone racism. So did this mean that they took the blame for all of the other bad behaviour that went on in the Big Brother house in years gone by?

The same goes for this year’s debates about “trust in TV”. Hypocrisy from top to bottom. When it isn’t feigned horror that premium rate phone-in competitions are indeed in existence merely to fleece viewers, it is the Daily Mail treating some set-up shots in Bargain Hunt or Nigella Lawson’s programme as heinous crimes punishable by hanging. That would be the Daily Mail, a newspaper well known for its rigorous honesty and integrity!

Learndirect knew full well what they were sponsoring before Judge Berg made his comments. As Jonathan Calder says, The Jeremy Kyle Show didn’t suddenly become inappropriate because a District Judge said so.

But I don’t think they should have withdrawn their sponsorship. As I said, this was probably the best way to get their message out. I just wish Learndirect would have the honesty to say so.

Long term readers of this blog will know that I am not a big fan of phone-in quizzes. So when the recent controversy surrounding premium rate phone lines I was quite pleased. But now I think it has turned into media bandwagon.

More and more instances of dodgy goings-on are being sniffed out by the media. The problem is, each subsequent new problem is less important than the last one. Now the premium rate phone lines look a bit amateurish — but not evil, which is what they actually are.

Not that I have any sympathy for the viewers who phone in time after time and somehow expect not to be charged. Take the fuss surrounding Channel Five’s Brainteaser. There were a few instances where the producers were unable to find anybody who had a correct answer among the ten random names and numbers supplied by the people in charge of the phone lines.

If you have ever watched Brainteaser, you will know just how cretinous you have to be to get the answer wrong. The most common puzzles on Brainteaser are are a bit like anagrams, but instead of all the letters being jumbled up, groups of letters are jumbled up. A typical example (stolen from here) is “LL WA PER PA”.

Not too difficult is it? To be honest, I don’t blame the producers for not having a contingency plan in case they can’t find somebody out of a list of ten people who can’t get the correct answer. It might have been misguided for them to make up fake names of non-winners, but this smacks more of panicking producers on a live TV show who don’t know what to do rather than the pure evil that can be found on other quiz channels.

Then there is the hoo-ha over The X Factor, where viewers were charged a bank-breaking 15 pence. I mean, most people probably drop that amount of money every day without realising it. And if you can’t spare that extra 15 pence, what on earth are you doing using premium rate phone-in lines where your chances of affecting the result are approximately zero?

Channel 4’s The Morning Line got in trouble for charging callers who were stupid enough to phone up after it was announced that the lines were closed. If the phrase “phone lines are now closed” isn’t enough to stop you phoning in, then you really have nothing to complain about.

And now we have got to the point where children are being dragged into the whole thing. A Blue Peter phone-in competition where proceeds went to charity fell victim to a technical glitch. Much like the Brainteaser instance, a panicking member of the production put a child who happened to be visiting the studio on the air to pose as a competition entrant.

Note the final couple of paragraphs in the story:

But Ms Zahoor, whose information led to the discovery, says she thinks the BBC’s reaction is “silly”.

“I didn’t realise that it would be blown out of all proportion,” she said, adding that she had refused to lodge a formal complaint about the show.

Again, it was probably misguided, but it is hardly the deception and near fraud that you find on some channels. I can’t actually imagine how lame the next “premium rate phone call revelation” is going to be. 999 lines open instead of the 1,000 promised? Comic Relief is going to be fun this year!

What really gets me the most about this storm is the fact that the very worst examples of the genre are getting away with it. The media is after the big names like Britain’s finest comedy duo Richard and Judy, Saturday Kitchen, The X Factor and Blue Peter.

But the quiz channels themselves — entire channels that are devoted to these controversial competitions — are carrying on pretty much as normal. There was a slightly eerie evening recently when there was only one of these on Freeview — Big Game TV on Ftn (how different would it be if this channel were called ‘Virgin’, its true colours?). But TMF’s Pop the Q was only gone for one evening due to a technical problem.

Channel Five dropped Quiz Call in the wake of the Brainteaser problems, but Quiz Call itself carries on as normal on Sky. The ITV Play channel has been axed by ITV, but only because it wasn’t making enough money!

These might be signs that the phone-in quiz television genre has hit the rocks. But the genre’s coat has been on a shoogly nail for ages. You can tell that with all the chopping and changing that has been going on, such as when Channel 4 sold Quiz Call (I bet they’re mighty glad they sold it now!) and the musical chairs involving Ftn’s, Channel Five’s and even ITV’s quiz slots.

ITV Play only makes money on its late-night ITV1 slot and apparently often made a loss during the day. The channel probably would have closed anyway — it’s just that now was a convenient time to close it.

With this controversy, programmes like the relatively innocuous Richard & Judy are being castigated, while the actually evil Make Your Play has technically been given the all-clear.

I mean, at least the competitions on Richard & Judy and the like have well-defined rules and everybody gets pretty much what is expected. On the quiz channels, on the other hand, callers are taken arbitrarily (even during ‘speed rounds’, even when the presenters are promising that they are taking “as many calls as they can”).

The questions are vaguely-defined such as the tower guessing games (where is the skill in that?, as a couple of Resonance FM presenters might say) or the downright deceitful ‘add the numbers / pennies / circles / whatever’ games. And they never tell you how they get to the answers. These are the real premium rate scams, but somehow everybody is now focussing on charity-funding competitions for children.

Finally, a big thumbs down goes to Icstis, the so-called regulatory body for premium rate phone lines. That is has taken this media bandwagon to finally get Icstis to levitate their big arse over problems that are in some cases several months old is shocking. The shouldn’t have to wait for the media to do their job for them.

Notably, The Hits has ditched its frankly diabolical Cash Call slot. Apparently this programme was actually beamed from Hungary (and the programme was often fronted by presenters whose grip of English wasn’t too great). Quite fishy.

Anyway, enjoy this clip of it on YouTube. As you can see, it is deceptively boring — a good cure for insomnia at that time of night perhaps? On the other hand, it is classic car-crash television, and it is fascinating just for how boring it is.

Update: Qwghlm Twitters his view:

ZOMG Blue Peter cheatery! Meanwhile, the Trident bill is going through the House…