Page last updated at 16:01 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 17:01 UK

Analysis: Ofcom's damning verdict on ITV

By Torin Douglas
Media correspondent, BBC News

Ant and Dec
Ant and Dec's shows have been heavily fined for deception

The fine may not be as high as Ofcom could have imposed, but the media regulator's verdict on ITV's misconduct is still damning.

The fine of 5.675m is almost three times the previous record - the 2m incurred by GMTV for its own phone vote scandals - and well above recent widely-reported predictions of 4m.

ITV must also make six on-air apologies and heed some withering words from the regulator.

Ofcom has slammed ITV's "institutionalised failure that enabled the broadcaster to make money from misconduct on mass audience programmes".

It said the breaches, involving programmes such as Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway and Soapstar Superstar, were among the "most serious abuses" of premium-rate services.

It said the fine reflected "not just the seriousness of ITV's failures but also their repeated nature".

Wrong signal

Given the old adage about sticks and stones, though, should the fine have been higher?

Former ITV executive Steve Hewlett told the BBC it was "on the pathetic end of not very much", given the profit ITV was returning to its shareholders.

He suggested it sent the wrong signal.

Ofcom said it took into account ITV's decision to repay 7.8m that viewers were overcharged for wasted phone calls.

Since most people have not bothered to make a claim for reimbursement - claims total just 10,000 - the vast bulk of this is going to charities, chosen in conjunction with the Charities Aid foundation.

Catherine Tate
Tate should have won the People's Choice Award in 2005

Ofcom played down claims it could have imposed a fine of 70 million.

The law said it can fine a broadcaster 5% of its "qualifying" advertising revenue.

Ofcom insiders said the 70m is based on a miscalculation and the true figure for ITV would be less than half of that.

Even so, many people believe a higher fine was justified because ITV's offences were among the worst in the catalogue of phone-in scandals.

These were not just cases of "keeping the show on the road", such as when the BBC's Blue Peter production team let a studio visitor "win" a competition because they could not put genuine callers through.

In these ITV cases, producers knowingly ignored or overruled the public's votes.

Wasted money

On Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, entrants for the Jiggy Bank competition were selected purely on where they lived, even though the broadcasters' own conditions said they would be chosen randomly.

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Details of the record fine for ITV

The winners were chosen on their suitability to be on screen, again in breach of ITV's own rules.

And on one occasion, someone known to the production team went on to "win" the competition.

On Soapstar Superstar, Ofcom said: "The programme makers ignored the viewers' vote and finalised results before the lines had actually closed.

Ant, Robbie and Dec
The duo say they will return the award which was presented by Williams

"This resulted in the wrong participants being put forward for eviction."

The producers also overrode the song choices voted for by viewers.

And on Ant & Dec's Gameshow Marathon, winners were again selected on their suitability to be on the screen.

The net result of all this misconduct was that millions of people who were ringing in wasted their money.

Nor is it yet over for ITV.

It has now revealed more details about the problems with the British Comedy Awards, which led it to drop the event last year.

It's published a report from the law firm Olswang showing that in 2005 the People's Award, voted for by viewers, should have gone to the Catherine Tate Show, not Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway.

When the winner was announced, Tate had more votes than Ant & Dec.

Intriguingly, the report also revealed the award organisers had promised Robbie Williams that he could present an award to Ant & Dec, in order to guarantee his attendance at the show.

Was this why they were wrongly presented with the People's Award?

Olswang's report stated: "While it can be concluded that the assurance was given to ensure Robbie Williams' attendance to present an award, it cannot be concluded that this was the reason why the wrong winner of the People's Choice Award was announced."

It also said there is no suggestion that the singer or Ant and Dec were aware of "any of these issues".

Even so, Ofcom can be expected to take a dim view of it.


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