Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Bob Winsor

  I blew the whistle on Big Game TV and Mark Field MP has agreed to raise important issues about this morally dubious industry with the Secretary of State. Attached is an article I plan to get published in the name of public interest [not printed here]. I would appreciate it if you would read the proposed article as it gives a detailed account as to how the public may be being defrauded.


  INTRO. and then ... Recently ITV's Quizmania ran a "family fortunes" type game by which money was won for guessing one of the correct answers to the question "Things in a Lady's Handbag". After a few hours the top answer still hadn't been guessed and so the presenter revealed the answer. This top "answer" was rawl plugs, it might as well have been hand grenade. Still, Quizmania would have made huge profits whilst viewers phoned in with their hopelessly realistic answers. In an industry worth an estimated £160 million a year it seems the lure of such profits has cancelled out the conflicting interests of viewers' trust and quality programming. As a former telephonist at Big Game Television, who are currently under investigation by the City of London Fraud Squad, I can speak from experience and in favour of the argument for more effective regulation. It is in the domain of public interest that the techniques these quizzes may use to extract the maximum amount of money from viewers should be exposed. The practices described took place whilst I was employed by Big Game TV between May 2005 and March 2006.

  Perhaps the most serious case of malpractice was the changing of an answer should the top answer on a family fortunes type game be won "too soon". Admittedly this happened on very rare occasions but it did happen and therefore is contrary to Big Game TV's Player's Charter, published on the internet which (mis)states that "Before beginning a game, the producer will enter an answer into our computer system. Once the game begins the answer is locked in and cannot be changed." The exact opposite is true— the telephonist has to ask the caller their answer so that it can be typed into the corresponding answer slot if it is correct. Last October I was taking calls for a family fortunes type game "Things you see in a Pub?" The top answer of pork scratchings was worth £200 and a winner guessed the answer within the first 30 minutes of the game. When the top prize is won this quickly it is not good for call revenue because having a top answer of £200 still to be won is more tempting to viewers than a £20 bottom answer. Bearing this in mind the producer moved this top £200 answer down to the £40 answer slot whilst the presenter stalled the player with the usual "Hi! So, where are you calling from" chitchat. The producer then entered "Drunk Person" as the new top answer thus depriving the winner of £160.

  Sometimes maths games were played where the answer required a bit more thinking but if a player got the right answer too soon telephonists were told to tell the winner that their details were being entered into a computer (non existent) and that the computer may randomly select and call them back as the winner. Telephonists would then carry on putting only incorrect answers through to the presenters. After a length of time the telephonist would be asked to call back the first caller who had given the correct answer. Subsequent correct answers during the game were told the same lie but obviously the "random computer" didn't select them to win.

  The most regular method employed on "family fortune" type games can best be explained by describing a game which was broadcast last March. "Things you keep as Pets' was the game. The bottom, low prize money answers were won quickly (cat, dog, mouse). These easy, low prize answers may merely act as bait to show viewers that they actually do get through live on air and so stand a chance of winning the larger amounts of money on offer. However, the producer knows that it is highly unlikely that callers will guess Bearded Dragon as the "pet" worth the top £200 answer and so callers are allowed to come through thick and fast to the studio until ideas have been exhausted and the studio software consequently indicates that the call volumes are starting to drop. At this point a clue appears on screen "BEARDED DRAG-N". Because the callers had been getting through when there was no clue they have good reason to believe that they will get through again and recoup the money that they have so far spent. These players are unaware that the goalposts have been moved and calls are now being ignored because the clue on the screen has now made the answer ridiculously obvious. Callers often complained to me that they could never get through once the clue had appeared on screen. I emphasize that players have "good reason" to carry on calling the quiz to highlight the point that players are not being gullible. They are, I believe, the victims of deception. If the hypothetical construct of a reasonably intelligent person is employed as an example then it is plausible that such a person would believe that they have a chance of getting through once a clue appears on screen because they were getting through when there no clue was on screen. The producer will capitalise on making callers think they will get though as usual by zooming in on the dummy studio phone which will now be silent, "tension" music will be played. The presenter encourages more callers. The deception succeeds—call volumes will suddenly shoot up from 20 or 30 per minute to 150-200 per minute. The presenter begs for callers to "hit the redial button" and win the money. The telephonist is told to ignore the calls for any amount of time and Big Game television makes a fortune by employing what I believe are deceptive means. Before I left Big Game TV profits from 70,000 calls a day could be taken using these methods. However since the fraud squad raided the studio both ITV Play and NTL have dropped all Big Game TV productions from their schedules and Sky 3 have recently pulled out of negotiations with Big Game TV in order to protect their image. Big Game TV still produce the Hallmark Channel Quiz.

  The opinion that people who play these games are no-hopers and so deserve all they get is blinkered, ignorant nonsense that completely misses the point. If people wish to take part in interactive quiz shows they should be allowed to do so without fear of being victims of what the more generous media has termed sharp practice. People of all social identities may be potential victims of these quizzes. Last year regular players included people from all sorts of jobs along with a decorated WWII Halifax bomber navigator and a housebound woman recovering from a throat biopsy. After a while most people will stop playing. One can only assume they have received their phone bills. Who knows what the full consequences of such astronomical phone bills may be on the standards of living of victims and their spouses? Who knows how many people may have become addicted to these shows? On the subject of addiction ITV Play has made a laughable attempt to be a responsible broadcaster by limiting calls to 150 per day per household. 150! That's £112.50 per day. Or to put it another way ITV Play are so concerned about the welfare of its viewers that they wish to "limit" quarterly phone bills (from BT landlines. Other networks may vary) to an extortionate £10,000. Stronger regulation is urgently needed to protect not only consumers but also broadcasters who may wish to set up legitimate interactive quiz shows.

  Last October, after receiving no response to two complaints emailed to the directors Music and Brands (Big Game Television's parent company) I contacted the regulating body. ICSTIS informed that the allegations were extremely serious to the point that they would involve the fraud squad. This advice highlights an obvious gap between the law and effective regulation. It should not be the case that employees are left no option but to report breaches of ICSTIS' standards of fair play to the fraud squad and by doing so possibly incurring the nightmare of becoming a CPS witness. In response to issues I have since raised, Ofcom's policy director Chris Banatvala, has replied that "Deception on the public committed by any interactive quiz show that results in a loss money and—to a lesser extent—a waste of people's time, is a breach of generally accepted standards. It is not possible however to frame regulations that prevents deliberate deception that amounts to fraud." Such a matter is a matter for the police and not for Ofcom". I take his point. However, it seems that due to the recent adverse publicity and a sharp rise in the number of complaints to the regulators, many of these interactive channels appear to be self-regulating for the sake of self-preservation. For example, many of these shows now have the presenter carrying the answer in an envelope in the hope of persuading the viewer, in the face of publicity to the contrary, that the answer cannot be changed. Many quizzes now display a three minute clock and inform the viewer that a call will be taken within the three minutes. Whilst at Big Game Television I was once told to ignore the calls for over two and a half hours whilst a picture of a fish and the word "fingers" was on the screen. The call volumes were so high that the producer didn't wish to give the £100 prize money away. Admittedly holding calls for this length of time was rare—half an hour to an hour was the norm. Bearing these meek self- regulatory measures in mind, surely any legitimate potential broadcasters would support Ofcom in framing legislation that strongly dictates how games have to be played instead of the present vague, open-toabuse guidelines on how games should be played? For example: a definition of fair play should be required; a time limit on how long simple puzzles may be played should be made known to broadcasters; a statement of odds is necessary—most of the time 80% of all calls to BGTV were routed to a "hard luck. Try again" type of message. Therefore the odds of getting through are, theoretically, immediately cut to 5-1. So the cost of a call maybe 75p but the cost of actually getting through will be more like £3.75 (not taking into account whether the single telephonist is answering calls or the fact that hundreds if not thousands of people may be trying to get through to the single telephonist at the same time). Perhaps independent adjudicators should be employed and paid for by the industry for the sake of accountability, transparency and trust? Adjudicators are essential for checking the methodology of what appear to be simple maths puzzles. Here are two examples of these puzzles played by Big Game Television last year. They clearly illustrate my point. The examples are printed in upper-case because answers often involve letters that may double-up as roman numerals.

  Add the numbers:


    2.  THE NUMBERS 4, 5, AND 9

    3.  THESUM 36


  Big Game Television's answer to this puzzle is 3,176

    1.  A CAT'S LEGS

    2.  TAILS ON A DOG



  Answer: 782

  Perhaps these answers are correct, but the point is that the methodology needs to be double-checked by an independent source if only to avoid the risk of human error. In a letter to me earlier this year regarding the genre in general, Chris Banatvala voiced Ofcom's concerns about the methodology behind these games and the detrimental effect for players and broadcasters alike that result from the various unfair methods still open to the producers of interactive quiz shows. "We consider that the integrity of the answers is of paramount importance. We have and are continuing to conduct a number of investigations into this area. Going forward, we are also considering how best to provide a framework for Ofcom to deal with these matters, so that we can react as quickly and effectively as possible . . . It is essential that in order to protect the public—and the industry—that the standard set by Ofcom is maintained. Failure to abide by Ofcom's standards will lead to members of the public losing money and faith in the probity of the broadcasters. Ofcom has a range of sanctions at its disposal including fines and revocation of licence—it has not been afraid to use its powers in this area." This is good news, and with the added pressure from public opinion perhaps there is hope that tighter controls are in place a lot sooner September 2007 when a proposed "raft of legislation" aims to clamp down on the industry. In the meantime Mark Field MP, in his position of Shadow Minister for Culture, has agreed to discuss the issues raised here and in my police statement with the Secretary of State. Ofcom have informed me that they are looking into Quizmania's game methodology .

30 October 2006

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