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ITV con: Phone-in fakery

Ant & Dec won the people's choice prize at the British Comedy Awards in 2005. There's one catch: the viewers voted for somebody else. It is one of an astonishing series of deceptions revealed in a damning report on 'ITV Con'

When Robbie Williams was asked to present a prize at the British Comedy Awards, he agreed, on the understanding that the gong would go to Anthony McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, aka the golden boys of entertainment television, Ant and Dec.

There was just one problem. Their ITV1 show, Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway had not been chosen by any of the jury panels deciding the awards.

On the night of the ceremony in 2005, broadcast on ITV1, viewers were asked to phone in to vote for the People's Choice Award.

Conveniently, Ant and Dec emerged victorious, and Williams got his moment with his mates.

But an independent report by the law firm Olswang, published by ITV yesterday, revealed that, if all the votes had been taken into account, The Catherine Tate Show would have won.

There is no suggestion that Williams, McPartlin or Donnelly were aware of any of those issues – a spokesman for Ant and Dec insisted they were "really appalled" by what happened and would be returning their award.

But ITV chose to release the Olswang report on the same day that Ofcom, after an entirely separate investigation, slapped a record £5.675m fine on the broadcaster for cheating viewers out of millions of pounds in television phone-in competitions.

A large proportion of that fine – the largest ever imposed on a broadcaster by the watchdog – was incurred by Takeaway and Gameshow Marathon, both shows presented by Ant and Dec.

Although McPartlin and Donnelly insist they knew nothing about it, producers were routinely cheating viewers on phone-in competitions which were central to the success of their shows.

The chairman of Ofcom, Ed Richards, said the watchdog had imposed the sanctions after "a thorough set of investigations that uncovered institutionalised failure within ITV that enabled the broadcaster to make money from misconduct on mass audience programmes".

On top of the fine, ITV has donated £7.8m to charity, bringing its total costs to nearly £13.5m, not to mention the damage to its reputation. If ITV had not acted of its own accord to repair its wrongs, Ofcom made it clear the fine would have been larger.

Michael Grade, executive chairman of ITV plc, yesterday reiterated an "unreserved apology" to the public, first issued in October 2007, when the independent auditor Deloitte and Touche published its own report into the phone-in scandal.

Mr Grade admitted: "For anyone who cares about British broadcasting the Ofcom findings and the Deloitte review make for sorry reading. It is clear these serious breaches of trust were evidence of gross editorial errors of judgement designed, mistakenly, to enhance the viewer experience."

In ITV's defence, he added: "In no case is there evidence that there were any corrupt attempts to generate further revenues," and insisted the broadcaster had "totally re-engineered" its editorial and training procedures to ensure the mistakes are never repeated.

To understand the whole murky business, it is necessary to go back to March 2007, when press reports first started to emerge suggesting that television phone-in competitions were routinely cheating viewers out of money. ITV immediately suspended the use of lucrative premium rate interactive services (PRS) and brought in Deloitte to carry out a review of the use of PRS in its programmes.

ITV may have been the worst offender but it was not alone. In June last year, channel Five was fined £300,000 by Ofcom for faking the winners of a phone-in quiz on its daytime show Brainteaser.

Channel 4 was also forced to abandon PRS when it emerged that viewers had not been given a fair chance on Richard and Judy's "You Say We Pay" competition and on Deal or No Deal, presented by Noel Edmonds.

Ofcom imposed a £1.5m fine on Channel 4, while the premium rate phone line regulator Icstis imposed penalties of £150,000 and £30,000 respectively on phone operators Eckoh and iTouch. The breakfast television company GMTV was also fined £2m by Ofcom and a record £250,000 by Icstis over phone-in competitions which 18 million viewers entered with little or no chance of winning.

Even that bastion of BBC values, Blue Peter, was fined £50,000 by Ofcom for allowing a child guest in the studio to pose as a caller in a phone-in competition when technical problems prevented real callers getting through.

In a series of damning judgements, Ofcom laid bare practices that went on at ITV companies LWT and Granada between 2003 and 2007.

The £5.675m fine comprises a £3m fine for Takeaway; £1.2m for Gameshow Marathon; £1.2m for Soapstar Superstar and £275,000 relating to phone-in competitions on the digital channel ITV2.

Other ITV1 shows including I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! and People's Court and the now-defunct digital station ITV Play were also found to be in breach of Ofcom's code, but no sanction was imposed.

"Jiggy Bank" was one of the highlights of Takeaway, a competition in which viewers were invited to text the show, at the cost of £1 plus three standard rate SMS messages, for the chance to ride a giant piggy bank to dislodge and win as many of the 5,000 £1 coins inside.

According to the terms and conditions, a shortlist would be selected at random and contacted by members of the production team to ensure they met the health and safety criteria, before an eventual winner was chosen, again at random.

In reality, the producers had already predetermined the geographical locations that would be visited by the giant piggy bank each week. A shortlist was then drawn up of 20 to 30 individuals who lived within approximately one hour's drive of that location.

Researchers would telephone each individual, not merely to assess their age and physical fitness, but also to judge whether they would be suitably lively on camera. In one episode, a winner who was already known to the production team was chosen because they were considered "bubbly", while on another occasion a winner was chosen even before viewers were asked to text in for the chance to take part.

Similar problems occurred on two other competitions on the show – "Grab the Ads" and "Win the Ads". In Grab the Ads, viewers answered a multiple-choice question on screen for the chance to win items advertised in the commercial breaks in a programme from the previous week.

But the callers were not operating on a level playing field. Later entrants to the competition had a lesser chance of being selected. A shortlist was drawn up by an external contractor, who was supposed to check that callers were not drunk or abusive but who, in fact, judged whether entrants were "articulate and would be likely to be lively if they were put through to the studio". The contractor also took account of geographical location to prevent winners being repeatedly selected from the same part of the country.

Win the Ads followed a similar policy, in which members of the production team telephoned potential entrants in "a form of audition, involving 'editorial judgement', which had been contrary to the terms and conditions of the competition", said Ofcom.

On Ant and Dec's 2005 series Gameshow Marathon, made by LWT, viewers were invited to phone or text to enter "Prize Mountain", a competition in which Les Dennis delivered the prizes in a large lorry. Again, the programme promised winners would be selected at random but the production team in fact screened voice messages for entrants who sounded lively and lived close enough together to be visited at the same time.

More than two million viewers entered the competition in the space of six weeks and nearly half of those were via text message. But the researcher responsible for selecting the winners could not even remember how the SMS entries had been vetted or if if they had been vetted at all.

Over at fellow ITV company Granada, the producers of Soapstar Superstar showed a similar disregard for viewers. In one show, on 5 January 2007, presenter Zoë Ball was still urging viewers to call in to vote for their favourite singer after the phone lines had closed. When the votes were announced, the contestants in ninth and tenth place should have been put forward for an overnight eviction vote but, instead, producers chose to put forward the contestants in seventh and eighth place.

The production team also overrode viewers' votes for songs performed by the contestants, and when junior members of the team voiced concerns, ITV admitted they were "firmly sat upon" by senior producers.

In all cases, Ofcom identified the executive producers of the programmes as the main culprits but the watchdog noted that "no significant disciplinary action had been taken against any ITV or LWT employee".

Mr Grade has promised ITV will never stoop to such depths again. If the public's trust in television is to be restored – and if Ant and Dec are to recapture their popular appeal – he must prove true to his word.