The premium rate scandal has caught the wrong culprits

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…


  1. Being over here whilst you’re over there, I haven’t seen any of this but I read of it this evening. By the way, LL WA PER PA – that’s PAL RAPE WL, isn’t it? Whoever WL is.

  2. Your comments that the Brainteaser allegations are minor omit two things.
    Firstly thats only what they owned up to,who knows what other skeletons might be in the cupboard.It shows they have the mechanism to rig the winner if they so wished for any other purpose.
    Secondly a member of staff went on air posing as a winner.Only two or three researchers work there so why didn’t the presenter recognise the voice? If she was aware of the deception before,during or after and continued to exhort people to phone in subsequently I think the police shoud be investigating how that squares with the 2006 Fraud Act.

  3. Well every competition in the world probably has a mechanism to rig the winner if they wanted to. Plus, I don’t really see what the presenter would be expected to do. Call foul live on air? She’d be out of a career for life.