Gambling on TV? It's a sure thing

Betting on the box is big business. But it's set to explode, says Lucy Rouse

Tessa Jowell's Gambling Bill prompted a rebellion on the Labour back benches and a slew of headlines such as "My Life in Slot Machine Slavery". Her plans to relax laws and allow Las Vegas-style casinos to open across Britain were regarded by critics as a recipe for encouraging gambling addiction.

Tessa Jowell's Gambling Bill prompted a rebellion on the Labour back benches and a slew of headlines such as "My Life in Slot Machine Slavery". Her plans to relax laws and allow Las Vegas-style casinos to open across Britain were regarded by critics as a recipe for encouraging gambling addiction.

But anyone who seriously enjoys a flutter knows that Britain's gambling environment is already undergoing a revolution and all the action is taking place not in casinos, but in our front rooms. It's difficult to quantify how big the television gambling market is, but estimates for this year range from £250m to £500m. One thing is certain, growth is huge. KPMG predicts the sector could be worth £2.8bn in two years' time.

For the 13 million UK households with digital TV, the options for betting are almost unlimited. Avago channel offers live bingo between 1pm and 1am every day; the racing channel At the Races allows you to bet at more than 26 courses; Sky Vegas Live lets you place casino-style bets or back virtual horse races daily between 6pm and 2am; and through Sky Bet Live you can bet on up to 70 different possibilities in Premiership football.

Then there's Littlewoods, Ladbrokes and, soon, William Hill offering fixed-odds betting at any hour of the day or night via digital television. Littlewoods backer Sportech is also offering a series of prize-money games behind programmes such as Pop Idol. This is all good news for the broadcasters, their shareholders and all those who like a harmless punt. Others are more concerned. Michael Smeaton, a remote gambling specialist at the charity Gamcare, warns that the accessibility of television betting will create more problem gamblers. "The difference with interactive TV is it brings gambling into the most popular room in the home via the most popular medium. For people who do have a problem, it allows them greater access," he says.

Professor Mark Griffiths, of the international gaming research unit at Nottingham Trent University, says broadcasters have an opportunity to demonstrate social responsibility and by doing so could reduce the current problems with unregulated gambling.

"Gambling through interactive TV is likely to flourish," he says. "The combination of gambling's impulsive nature and the ubiquitous ease of television may prove hard to resist. Interactive television gambling will bring new and more immediate gambling opportunities and could include non-sporting events like who will win the Eurovision Song Contest, who will be evicted from the Big Brother house, or who will pick up an Oscar."

The TV gambling phenomenon started when niche channels discovered an appetite for poker-themed programming. The cable and satellite channel Challenge led the way last October with Celebrity Poker Club; now Sky is said to be considering a dedicated poker channel, while ITV, Channel 4 and Five have all expressed an interest in poker programming.

Challenge channel controller Jonathan Webb says that TV offers a safe environment for people to dabble in gambling. "TV is that friendly place to learn how to do it and to not have to join the dirty-mac brigade in betting shops," he says. For now, Sky Bet - a division of BSkyB - is the biggest player in the TV gambling sector with a turnover of around £300m last year. Sky is unwilling to confirm how many people bet on its Vegas Live channel but it's understood to be 100,000 a week.

The Government is waking up to the implications of all this. Existing laws on gambling date back to the 1960s and cannot regulate gambling on TV or the internet. A Gambling Bill, creating a new regulator - the Gambling Commission - is expected to become law late next year. The bill addresses concern about problem gambling and preventing those under 18 from betting.

Both Sky and Avago limit the amount any one person can spend on their services, and Sky claims to vet players to ensure they're over 18. All the operators work closely with consumer protection body Gamcare but say more co-operation is needed from banks. Under 18-year-olds can own credit or debit cards, the currency for TV games, so Gamcare wants a system whereby banks can certify whether a card-holder is older or younger than 18.

Setting the right regulatory environment for this new breed of gambler is crucial, not least because the UK interactive gambling sector could become a template for the rest of the world. Damian Cope, managing director of DITG Gaming, which runs Avago, says his company has had several visitors from the US, where gambling on TV is still illegal. "We're creating an environment where TV gambling is a regulated product and in time there will be a Coral, Gala Bingo and Mecca channel, plus some US operators will come into the UK to try things out before launching in their own market," he predicts. The stakes are high indeed.

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