Will Ayre's recommendations do the trick?
Issue Date: 18/07/2007
Unique Users: 10,131,089
Web Site: Guardian Unlimited
How far will Richard Ayre's Ofcom recommendations help to simplify the regulatory picture for broadcasters with regards to participation TV?
Richard Ayre's recommendation that broadcasters should be held responsible for failures in participation TV shows is unlikely to clarify what could become an increasingly complex regulatory situation.
The damning report, which will inform Ofcom's own forthcoming broader consultation on participation television, said that the preferred route was to "send the strongest possible message" to broadcasters by amending their licences to make them directly responsible for failures.
However, broadcasters are already on the road to cleaning up their act, according to Suhail Bhat, director of policy and initiatives for the Mobile Entertainment Forum, which has worked with the industry players on creating a self-regulatory framework.
"Sending out messages is all well and good but broadcasters and service providers are all well aware of their responsibilities now," he said.
"Our self-regulation framework has dealt with many of the issues, including transparency, pricing, each vote counting, refunds and making sure there are no more repeats of the mistakes we have seen".
Mr Bhat said today's recommendations would not simplify the regulatory picture for broadcasters.
He pointed out that a TV programme that transgresses regulations could possibly come under the remit of four different regulators.
Alongside Ofcom and premium-rate phone watchdog Icstis, the Advertising Standards Authority and, from September, probably the Gambling Commission, could all be involved in ruling on participation TV shows.
Under its remit in the new Gambling Act, the Gambling Commission is soon to take responsibility for TV quizzes "where the need for immediate responses is emphasised... or the quiz is only run for relatively short periods".
As the crisis has deepened, broadcasters have moved to clean up their act.
Earlier this month the ITV executive chairman, Michael Grade, proposed a "zero tolerance" attitude to failings, and in March Channel 4's chief executive, Andy Duncan, stressed that "viewers are not numbers".
Today, in a statement, Channel 4 reiterated that it had already introduced a "tough new monitoring system of the type the Ayre report recommends".
There is no question that adopting Mr Ayre's recommendations would certainly grind any further transgressions to a halt, although the MEF argues that more regulation may not be the answer.
"What is needed is absolute clarity," Mr Bhat said. "I'm not sure that amendments to licences does that. It is fine having more than one regulator but the remit of each needs to be extremely clear."
Trays O'Reilly, director of standards at Icstis, said it was "very clear to all parties" that there was no overlap between Icstis and Ofcom. "Amending broadcasting licences will make it clear to broadcasters of their own accountability in the supply chain," he said.
However, Mr Ayre's report also included another option - one he did not support for various reasons - which would be to make broadcasters directly responsible for breaches under Icstis's code.
At the moment the watchdog only has the power to sanction the companies running the telephony services.
Ofcom has said it will look at its co-regulatory relationship with Icstis in its consultation.
Just a year ago, participation TV was seen as a potential cash cow for broadcasters which are witnessing advertising revenues trickling to other media and are being hit by the implementation of stricter rules on junk food advertising.
To this end, ITV Play was launched with much fanfare amid bold predictions of making £20m profit in its first year of operation.
However, the extent of the problem, as outlined today by the BBC, shows that perhaps current attempts to boost self-regulation are not enough.
Based on Ofcom's tough stance in its ruling against Channel Five's Brainteaser last month, it is likely that the result of the regulator's upcoming participation TV review will endorse Mr Ayre's recommendation that broadcasters should ultimately be held responsible for problems with premium phone lines.