Don't keep me hanging on the telephone

People, it seems, love to call in and air their opinions on TV and radio shows, and phone-in competitions and polls are expanding the possibilities. But are the callers being exploited? Meg Carter reports
Phone-lines have a certain image: sad souls calling in hope of finding love, sharing their political opinions (usually to the right of Attila the Hun) or sounding off about their alien abduction. It's usually cheap and invariably tawdry - and also a lucrative way to earn extra cash. But television programme phone-ins are splitting producer ranks.

Regarded by some as a neat way of boosting audience loyalty, others fear viewers are being ripped-off. It's a massive and still growing market. Peak-time programmes inviting viewers to phone in can generate a massive response: 602,371 viewers called in just 75 minutes to vote in last year's final of Stars in their Eyes. This year, Granada is preparing to handle 84,000 phone votes a minute for the 1996 event on 25 May. But "tele-votes" are only the beginning: competitions, help lines - even games played live on-air by pressing the numbers on a digital phone - are all the vogue. Now, growing concern has prompted the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS) to launch a review of premium-rate phone services; its report will be published next month.

Broadcasters claim it's all about involvement and interactivity: the appeal lies in what the phone-line adds to the programme. "In current affairs, it's an opportunity for an instant straw poll," says Jane Macnaught, executive producer, entertainment, at Granada. "For Stars in Their Eyes, it's the chance to have a national referendum. Forget the experts - who do you want to win?"

Interest in running phone services is growing, according to Malcolm Jessop, managing director of Telephone Information Services, whose clients include Wish You Were Here?, which attracts between 50,000 and 100,000 competition calls each week.

"Broadcasters use phone-lines to interact with viewers and give something back, like prizes; to obtain information about what is liked and disliked about a programme and the revenue aspect," Jessop explains. "Millions of people in the UK get an awful lot of enjoyment out of this."

However, the "revenue aspect" is critics' chief cause for concern. With most calls charged at premium rates of up to 49 pence per minute, they say it sounds like money for old rope.

"In the early days, phone-lines were regarded by some as a way to supplement limited production budgets," comments an independent producer recently involved in a late-night show for ITV. But they weren't always popular with producers: "When we launched ours, it wasn't by choice. Phone-ins have a downmarket image. We needed the money." Others followed suit and broadcasters began demanding their cut. The BBC even launched its own premium-rate call-handling division, BBC Audiocall.

Today, all premium-rate phone-lines must follow ICSTIS guidelines, which include clearly advertising the cost to the public. And most broadcasters have introduced stricter rules. At Channel 4, calls are kept to a maximum of one minute and cut off after a certain period, even if the handset has not been replaced. "Premium-rate lines more effectively allow people to call in en masse and avoid jamming the system," a Channel 4 spokesman explains. "It is not a cash-generating operation. We made just pounds 51,000 in phone revenue last year."

At the BBC, 30 per cent of net phone revenue is ploughed back into the programme, the rest goes to central BBC coffers at the end of the year. Meanwhile, ITV attempts to protect editorial integrity by ensuring the programme does not directly benefit. Phone income from network programmes goes to the originating ITV company, which pays a variable proportion to the producer before dividing the rest across the network. Although calls were charged at 10p a minute, last year's Stars in Their Eyes final netted only pounds 11,500 for ITV, Jane Macnaught says.

Even the best known phone-in show, Carlton Television's Talking Telephone Numbers, generates only minimal phone income, its makers claim. With 96 phone lines, callers are charged at local 0345 rates (10p a minute maximum). "All are processed within 30 seconds and then phoned back at the programme's expense," says Steve Springford, director of production at Celador, which produces the programme. The cost of this - plus subsidising viewers' calls - is pounds 120 a week: "We believe it is very wrong for viewers to be financially penalised for taking part in a programme."

Yet the perception of exploitation lingers. "Many phone-in competitions are so astonishingly easy it's a lottery whether you win or not, so many people must call in," says Jocelyn Hay, chairman of consumer group Voice of the Listener. At issue is the cost of the call and the time spent on the line - is it being artficially extended by long, drawn-out messages? "It's very clever marketing. It's something that needs to be looked at so people are not exploited."

In fact, TV phone competitions are not lotteries. To be nominally legal, all must include an element of skill. Even so, the Gaming Board is keeping an eye on broadcasters' activities. "Most games operate on a two-tier structure. The first round is the skill, the second a prize draw," John Buckle, a spokesman for the board, explains. "If the skills required are so low and many people get through, the prize is inevitably awarded by chance."

The Gaming Board is not investigating any individual programmes, although it has expressed its concern to the Independent Television Commission. Last December, the ITC wrote to commercial broadcasters warning them to seek legal advice if in any doubt about the status of their viewer competitions. All of which makes the ICSTIS review very timely indeed.

"There is growing concern about all premium-rate services, although those relating to TV programmes are the most visible," explains Anthony Smith, ICSTIS associate director. "What's needed now is to get the facts out into the open and stimulate industry debate about how to move forward from here."

This will be increasingly important as broadcasters explore new ways to get closer to their audience. "Newspapers and magazines have already cottoned on to the value of using caller information to build databases for sales and marketing," Jessop says. "It can only be a matter of time before mainstream broadcasters do so, too."