The official committees of MPs who scrutinize the media for parliament have reported back today about Quiz TV, and they find much to concern them.
Who regulates them?
New Labour promised "joined up government" but has delivered cracks in the pavement regulation. There is confusion as the controversial Gambling Act 2005 will not provide the new Gaming Commission with its powers until September 2007, but the commission regard Quiz TV as an Ofcom (the Office of Communications) issue and Ofcom refer you to ICSTIS (the premium rate phone line body).
Both ICSTIS and the Gaming Commission are 'consulting' at the moment, which means their evidence was limited and the MPs have demanded urgent publication of their findings.
This means that unless Ofcom or ICSTIS take the public's interests before those of those who fund them, little can be done until the new Act's provisions come into force in September. So the MPs 'recommend that there should be one regulator, in our view Ofcom, taking the lead and orchestrating oversight.'
Is it a lottery?
The MPs certainly feel that the Quiz Channels have the look and feel of gambling. There are 'games of skill', such as found on daytime TV programmes where you call a number to indicate from a list of three options and a winner is selected at random from the correct ones.
Quiz TV channels are different, in that you may be one of up to 6,000 callers in any one minute, but all but one or two may be chosen to be 'put though to the studio'. Because you have to pass though a purely random selection system before you can possibly exercise you skill, the effect is a lottery. The MPs found that this lottery is an essential part of the Quiz TV business model.
When is a 150 calls limit not a limit?
A sensible suggestion is to limit the amount that can be spent when calling these channels. Using either the 'caller line ID presentation' (CLIP) - as you seen on a mobile phone or with a BT Caller Display unit, it is technically possible to reject calls before they are connected and charged for when a daily limit has been reached.
ITV Play claimed to have a limit of 150 calls per day. Whilst 112.50 may seem to some people quite a large upper limit their system simply blocks the caller from being able to enter the quizzes but STILL CHARGES 75p FOR EACH CALL which the MPs declared 'unacceptable in principle'.
Prevention of problem gambling
MPs recommend that calling patters of problem gamblers should be identified and that the number of GamCare put on screen at intervals.
Whist crosswords have been traditionally cryptic in the UK, the MPs felt that presentation of questions that required a cryptic interpretation was not flagged up to the viewer and was unfair without it. Some quizzes such a ITV Play claiming that "Rawlplugs" and "balaclava" were items found in a lady's handbag as 'the handbag may have belonged to a decorator present problems of fairness and transparency, and this instance was eventually found by Ofcom to be a breach of Rule 2.11 of the Broadcasting Code.
So the MPs recommend 'Ofcom should in particular watch for any sign that top prizes are consistently going unclaimed because they are associated with puzzles which are so obscure that no viewers solve them.'
The channels must display the odds
One of the most important requirements the MPs have demanded is that a real-time calculation of the odds should be displayed on-screen at all times. The broadcasters have claimed that this is difficult it is a function of the number of callers calling, the rejection rate, the prize size and the call charge but the MPs rightly concluded that the ' practical difficulties for operators are not insurmountable' and must 'increase transparency'.
Prominence of the phone number
MPs deemed that the on-screen display of the number to call should be balanced against cost of calling.
If you are banned for any reason (and some people have claimed they have been banned after winning a large prize) MPs demand that the TV companies give 'full information on the reasons why'.