Saturday, October 20, 2007

Can I interest you in a phone vote?

I wouldn't particularly want to be Dermot O'Leary right now. In about half an hour, he's due to go on air as the new host of ITV's The X-Factor and spend two hours shilling the phone vote lines.

It's not an ideal week to be doing that job. ITV have finally released the report into their phone vote irregularities - or rather, a summary, as the full version is apparently deemed too embarrassing to release. And if the version that's come out is the edited edition, heaven only knows what the full one must be like.

The BBC already fell on its sword a few weeks ago over an assortment of largely trivial viewer-deception issues. They ran a couple of phone-in quizzes on TV shows (with the proceeds going to charity) where fake winners were announced after technical problems. They faked phone-in callers to a couple of radio shows that were actually pre-recorded. A show that nobody's ever heard of on the Asian Network overruled the results of a movie award that was supposed to be determined by listeners' votes, because the real winner wasn't available for interview. And a long-serving producer was punished severely (I forget how) for the cardinal sin of mis-naming the Blue Peter cat because the most popular name selected by the kiddies was, somehow, thought to be inappropriate.

All this generated some terrible publicity for the BBC, because the other networks weren't coming clean at all. But with the benefit of hindsight, the BBC probably made the right move. They cleared decks before the other broadcasters could announce the results of their investigation. They were seen to do something about it. They never ran premium rate phonelines for gain (as a matter of policy, the BBC always gives the proceeds to charity). And, in comparison with ITV, their sins look fairly trivial.

ITV, in contrast, uses phone-in votes as a moneyspinner. This is where the cultural problem comes in. Take local radio. They do tons of phone-in votes. Win tickets for concerts, and so forth. In my experience (and I know people in the industry), they've always been a bit cavalier about selecting their winners honestly. They have something of a tendency to give prizes to their mates, frankly. But, crucially, this is not motivated by a desire to screw the listener. It's only in recent years that the stations have been able to charge people for entry to these competitions. In the past, you just ran a competition on air, and as long as it sounded okay, nobody was really losing out. Well, except the callers, but what's the price of a phone call?

A lot of audience members would probably have been a bit disillusioned by the above, but they'd have got over it.

The problem comes when you make premium rate phone-ins a central part of your business, and start running competitions where making money is a primary (or at least a major) goal. At that point, you've got to have a cultural change towards running them above board, because otherwise you're tricking people into spending money on entering a dodgy competition. Money that you get to keep. Audiences don't like that. They start using words like "fraud."

The Deloitte investigation into ITV reportedly concludes that the network made £7.8m from uncounted phone votes alone. Most of this comes from continuing to invite votes on air for a few minutes after the lines have closed, and I'm inclined to believe that it's sloppiness rather than criminal intent. But boy, does it look bad.

Others are harder to justify. Dire Pop Idol knock-off Soapstar Superstar (don't ask) simply ignored the premium-rate votes when it didn't like the results. The beloved presenter duo Ant & Dec ran several shows in which competition winners weren't selected at random at all, but by a combination of whether they happened to live in the right place for the film crew, and whether a researcher thought they would be entertaining on screen. Whether this is fraud (in either the popular or the legal sense) may be open to debate, but it seems pretty clearly over the line into illegality of some sort.

This is a particularly tricky one for A&D, as they have an executive producer credit on their show, and have always spoken proudly of their creative input. Now ITV are trying to distance them from the fiasco by calling it a "vanity credit." They've just announced that they'll be giving all the phone vote proceeds from their next series to charity, which is a desperation PR move that will cost ITV an awful lot of money. They may well be right that Ant and Dec are good enough presenters to be worth the cost of redeeming in the public eye, mind you. They're not easily replaced.

The fundamental problem here, though, isn't really about the cost of phone calls. It's the fact that the audience has finally figured out that primetime entertainment is a carnival sideshow, and they are the marks. At least the BBC can say with credibility that they never took money from the public. ITV can't.

Something tells me the number of votes will be down for this year's X-Factor, no matter how well Dermot O'Leary shills it.