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Dollars for dialing

Richard & Judy.

KAI RYSSDAL: American Idol got down to its final 12 last night (not that I was watching or anything). About 37 million people either sent text messages voting for their favorites. Or they picked up the phone and dialed one of the toll-free numbers. Chances are there would've been a whole lot fewer people voting if they'd had to pay for those phone calls. Which brings us to talent contests and call-in quiz shows over in the U.K. The government's looking into televised rip-offs, as Marketplace's Stephen Beard reports from London.


Photo: Richard & Judy. ()


STEPHEN BEARD: "Richard and Judy," one of Britian's most popular TV shows:

TV SHOW HOST:"Hi! Hello everyone. Welcome to the show. Tonight we celebrate one of the greatest comedians. . . .

A bubbly couple, they sit on a sofa chatting amiably to their guests. But in one recent show Richard and Judy appeared uncharacteristically glum.

JUDY: Richard and I knew absolutely nothing about this until late on Friday afternoon. We were very shocked and also we were angry on your behalf. We're very sorry, really.

RICHARD: I'll say. A huge "sorry" that this has happened.

What had happened was a scandal. Their cozy little show had been accused of ripping off viewers, of duping them into trying to take part in a quiz.

RICHARD: And, remember, everyday this week not only do you get the chance to play the game and win thousands, someone else could win a lovely holiday.

JUDY: Tell us on 0901 2934400 . . .

The telephone number is a so-called "premium rate" line. Callers are charged up to $2 a minute. With thousands of viewers calling in, a TV company can make a fortune just out of the phone calls. But in this case, it's alleged, Richard and Judy were still urging people to phone in long after the show's producers had selected the contestants.

JOHN WHITTINGDALE: I think there is a lot of concern that there are practices being adopted by companies which are unfair on the people participating.

Member of Parliament John Whittingdale.

WHITTINGDALE: In this case people were being encouraged to participate when they had absolutely no chance of winning. And that is clearly unacceptable.

Richard and Judy's quiz is not the only alleged culprit. Viewers calling in to vote for contestants in a talent show were overcharged. This week Michael Grade, the new boss of the UK's largest commercial broadcaster ITV, took an unprecedented step: He pulled the plug on all the company's premium-rate phone-in shows.

MICHAEL GRADE: We have taken the initiative. We've suspended everything. We are having a thorough, independent, health check on all our premium phone acitivities.

That's costing his company $3 million a week in lost premium-rate phone fees. But it's the right decision, says Mark Mendoza, who books TV airtime for advertisers.

MARK MENDOZA: To be honest, I think the whole telephone thing has run away with itself. If you go back to the origins of why people phoned in, it was for telethons, for charity. Now it's just a scam.

Yesterday, the government's premium-rate phone line regulator said he was investigating the allegations, and might call in the police. Regulations will be tightened. Last night, another scandal: A TV company admitted actually faking the results of a competition. The company, Cheetah Television, has apologized.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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