£80,000 fine for ITV awards fix

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The Independent Online

Regulator Ofcom imposed an £80,000 fine today after a prize-fix incident at ITV1's British Comedy Awards which wrongly named Ant and Dec as the People's Choice winners.

The fine to Channel TV, which was responsible for ensuring the show met standards, also covered appeals for viewers to continue voting even though polling had closed as the shows, in both 2004 and 2005, had already been recorded.

The incidents came to light after a number of TV phone-voting scandals which led to a shake-up in the industry.

And and Dec were given their award in 2005, even though the Catherine Tate Show received the highest number of votes. The production team overrode the popular vote.

Ofcom found Channel TV had been in breach of its broadcasting code for:

* Finalising the vote early and broadcasting the last half hour of the show "as live", yet leading viewers to believe they could still vote, which led to a £45,000 fine;

* Overriding the viewers' vote, which prompted a £35,000 fine.

In its findings today the Ofcom content sanctions committee said the the breaches which misled viewers were "extremely serious".

Ofcom said it was "frustrated by the lack of cooperation it received from some people involved in the production" of the two shows.

It had also been given conflicting stories about the substitution of winners.

One theory suggested singer Robbie Williams would appear only on condition he was presenting an award to Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly.

It was also suggested the switch could have been at the instruction of the production team, a phone provider or after comments made by ITV.

Ofcom said it was unable to reach a definitive conclusion.

The final 30 minutes of the British Comedy Awards programmes in 2004 and 2005 were screened after a break for the news, but had already been recorded.

Viewers were still encouraged to use a premium rate vote line to decide the People's Choice Award, even though their efforts were futile.

Channel TV admitted that the error, which occurred two years running, was "entirely unintentional but nonetheless stupid".

Ofcom said today: "These breaches were entirely foreseeable and were serious, reckless and repeated. The fact that the same failing was repeated a year later was of great concern to Ofcom.

"Importantly, had Channel TV adequately carried out its role to ensure compliance then the breaches would have been avoided."

Although Ofcom realised Channel TV did not itself override viewer votes at the 2005 event, it said safeguards should have been in place to stop it occurring.

"Channel TV should have been aware of the obvious risks associated with delay in the broadcast and with the possibility of poll tampering and the need for vote verification."

It added: "Its failure to take even rudimentary steps to ensure that safeguards were in place increased the ease with which the deception could occur."

Ofcom branded Channel TV's compliance procedures as "either absent or totally insufficient and ineffective in preventing these breaches from occurring".

And the regulator continued: "Ofcom was very concerned that it appeared that Channel TV did not, and still does not, properly appreciate the extent of its responsibilities for ensuring compliance with the (broadcasting) codes."

ITV said it "very much regrets" that viewers had been let down by Channel TV. And it criticised the framework which meant it was powerless to enforce compliance in this case, instead relying on another company chosen by the programme-maker.

"It is totally unacceptable that ITV plc should bear the brunt of any reputational damage associated with third party compliance failings," ITV said today.

"Viewers - and the talent involved in the show - were badly let down by Channel Television."

In a statement it said: "The programme was made by independent production company Michael Hurll Television - but not complied by ITV.

"Viewers - and the talent involved in the show - were badly let down by Channel Television.

"Under the existing regulatory rules, ITV Network is powerless to select the compliance company - something which remains solely at the producer's discretion.

"ITV raised this important issue with the regulator last year as part of Ofcom's Review of Networking Arrangements.

"Their review findings, published last month, failed to meet ITV's request to be allowed to comply all network programmes."

ITV said it is now aiming to itself oversee any compliance which is undertaken by non-ITV companies, after a rule change which means it may be open to a greater financial risk if breaches occur.

It added: "We believe ITV Network should be allowed to exercise full control of all ITV1 programme compliance - as is the case for BBC, Channel 4 and Five."