Has the industry learnt its lesson over the problem with call TV?
Ofcom is seeking to restore public faith in the use of premium rate phone services by making future abuses a breach of a broadcaster's licence. But has the industry learned its lesson?

This autumn Ofcom is to launch a detailed consultation into tightening the rules governing broadcasters' premium rate telephone services (PRTS). Its aim is to incorporate PRTS responsibilities into broadcasters' licences, a move which has sent a firm message to the very heart of the TV industry - get it right or face the consequences.

Ofcom's decision to amend licence requirements with regards to PRTS shows that the regulatory body wants to restore public trust in TV by threatening serious repercussions if scandals persist.

Under Ofcom's new rules, PRTS transgressions will be subject to far more stringent penalties than breaches of the Broadcasting Code, which have already cost Five £300,000 for Brainteaserand the BBC £50,000 for the kind of deception on Blue Peterthat would have had John Reith spinning in his grave.

Deceptions, deceptions

With deceptions coming to light across the corporation - including its Comic Relieffundraiser (pictured) - last month Richard Ayre, former BBC controller of editorial policy, highlighted the systemic problems that face an industry that is struggling with the concept of viewers as customers.

'Broadcasters are in denial about their own responsibility to ensure that the programmes they devise, commission or produce fully deliver on the transactions they offer to viewers,' he declared.

Among all the revelations and recommendations of the report, it is the use of the phrase 'denial' that has caused most anger in the broadcasting world.

'He [Ayre] is saying they are grossly irresponsible, really,' says Steve Hewlett, media consultant and former director of programmes at Carlton Television.

'Broadcasters haven't thought about how careful you have to be when you turn viewers into customers. Sky's viewers have always been customers and, if you have paying customers, you are all over every detail of the transaction. Although this is not a broadcaster's natural business, they would never be so careless with advertisers [as they have been with viewers],' he adds.

The broadcasters themselves form rank when questioned about whether they are in denial. 'I would refute the suggestion that ITV has been in denial about its responsibilities. On the contrary, ITV's actions have been swift and we have gone further than any other broadcaster,' says Jeff Henry, director of ITV Consumer.

Five joins Henry in his stance, with director of corporate affairs Sue Robertson saying that she does not believe it is fair comment. 'We've been thinking and talking about nothing else for months,' she argues.

Channel 4 takes a similar standpoint. Group finance director Anne Bulford argues that the swift action taken by the broadcaster shows it was not in denial. 'We have taken these issues very seriously and stepped in quickly to apologise on air, refund money and launch an investigation into all our PRTS activities,' she insists.

With conciliatory gestures coming in from all sides, it would be easy to say that the industry has learned its lesson, taken the rap and promised not to do it again.

All very well, but grovelling apologies don't address one of Ayre's main concerns, that there is an absence of systems in place designed to require, ensure and audit compliance with the rules. 'In the absence of such systems, individual mistakes, whether the result of technical failure, misjudgement, negligence or deliberate deceit, too often went unnoticed or unreported and sometimes ignored,' he says in his report.

This observation is at the very nub of the wider issue of the lack of trust in TV that has been created by the recent deception cases involving broadcasters.

Plan of action

In response, broadcasters have snapped into action. Channel 4 has outlined an action plan aimed at safeguarding viewer trust in its programmes, which will include enhanced training and greater accountability for producers. Five has launched its own viewer trust initiative, which includes a review of its procedures, processes, contracts and supplier relationships. The BBC is sending all its 16,500 editorial staff on a new editorial ethics training programme, which will also be open to the indie sector, and ITV executive chairman Michael Grade has set out a zero-tolerance regime with the sporting analogy of 'one strike and you're out'.

Grade's comments are particularly interesting. 'Anybody who makes programmes for me had better understand if they get caught setting out to deceive the public in any shape or form, that's it,' he insists.

The Deloitte report due on ITV could be interesting reading given the recent allegations in the Sunover the British Comedy Awards and Ant and Dec claiming they had already received the gong for People's Choice Award in 2005 in front of a studio audience when viewers were asked to vote for their winner on premium rate phone lines.

Under the new Ofcom rules, this would be the responsibility of ITV, and so the head on the block could be Grade's - quite an own goal if it came to pass. What next? Mark Thompson falling on his sword over Comic Relief?

Beyond the bluster and sound bites is an industry that recognises that it has made mistakes and is keen not to start a witch-hunt to satisfy media bloodlust.

'The Ayre report sounds sensible and Ofcom's proposals will eliminate any element of greyness that remain. While in the short term it may not be welcomed, responsible broadcasters will want this to take effect,' says Liam Hamilton, chief executive of Prospect Pictures, which produces Daily Cooksfor ITV.

It also seems unlikely that the new position from Ofcom will be used retrospectively, meaning the past transgressions of GMTV et al are not likely to see them pay the ultimate price of their licence.

'I would be surprised if anyone loses a licence over this for anything retrospectively, but if it happens again in the future it will be a very serious matter,' says Hewlett.

However, one side effect of the new rules designed to protect the audience could see broadcasters seek to take PRTS in-house in order to protect themselves from further risk. 'Our lawyers are looking at what contracts we would need to have with production companies and service providers going forward, but I could see a culture where broadcasters would want to mitigate the risk by doing more of these services in-house,' reveals Five's Robertson.

With more unsavoury revelations for the industry expected in the ITV Deloitte report, broadcasters are far from being able to see a light at the end of the tunnel. It will be interesting to see how Michael Grade, for one, plays ball with its findings.