The Emergence of Audience as Victims

The Issue of Trust in an Era of Phone Scandals

How to Cite

Ibrahim, Y. (2007). The Emergence of Audience as Victims: The Issue of Trust in an Era of Phone Scandals. M/C Journal, 10(5).
Vol. 10 No. 5 (2007): 'error'
Published 2007-10-01

The recent spate of reported errors with phone-in competitions run by UK broadcasters, including the esteemed British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), got to the heart of the relationship between the public and the broadcasters. The phone-in scandals, which have left not even the flagship children’s programme Blue Peter untouched, are inviting new scrutiny into the ethos and values of public service broadcasters in the era of interactive television. The industry regulator Ofcom’s unprecedented fine of £50,000 and its vitriolic reprimand of the BBC for the Blue Peter fiasco confirms the enormity of the aberration and puts the spotlight back on the issue of trust in the digital age of television. Ofcom found the public broadcaster guilty of duping millions of children and of making a child “complicit” in the deception. The Corporation was seen to have transgressed the Standards Code by deliberately deceiving its audience when the production team, due to an earlier technical error, had enlisted a child in the studio to pose as a winner of a phone-in competition.

With the proliferation of interactive information and communication technologies (ICTs), trust is fundamental to shaping the ways in which people engage and use traditional and new media technologies. With the advent of reality television and hybridisation of genres in our contemporary “post-documentary” (Corner) age, the broadcast space elicits both spectatorship into the personal as well as mass participation into “game play,” and in the process it incorporates trust into programme formats where people are made to feel they have a greater degree of agency. The integration of game playing into television programmes, whether it be the assignment of tasks to reality show contestants or through competitions and quizzes, creates new connectivities and “active” consumption which can re-frame the relationship between the broadcaster and audience. As observed by Mark Andrejevic the “hip little ‘i’ that appears in front of an array of popular products is about double articulation; both solipsistic customisation and the democratic promise of the ability to talk back – to ‘interact’” (392). In view of the post-documentary climate and the growing cynicism which is distinctive of a media-literate audience (Kilborn) new media technologies may be seen as new means to forge innovative relations with users by removing the pervasive suspicion of mediation (Jones 178). Others have hailed it a renaissance of democratic life (Bryan, Tsagarousianiou & Tamibini 5) and even the emergence of “participatory democracy on an enormous scale” (Meyorwitz 323).

As observed by Tonsen and Jensen (cf. Tincknell and Raghuram 254), the term “interactive television” refers to a whole range of services and technologies which may not share the same infrastructures or technologies, and interactivity may either be derived from hardware (i.e. the technology of the television itself) or through software (at the level of individual programmes). This means that technical glitches and lack of fairness and transparency in production formats can lead to the deception of the audience. Technical glitches can range from votes for programmes going uncounted, potential participants being encouraged to call expensive phone lines when finalists have already been chosen and new participants have no chance of winning, or when producers resort to faking winners in live programmes and even incorporate this into the production format and practice (“UK Threatens”). Additionally, the notion of “liveness” creates a viewing culture in which audiences expect instant gratification where results and winners are known and announced before the end of a programme and “celebrities” can emerge through the duration of a broadcast.

This paper seeks to examine the critical issues which have surfaced from the recent phone-in scandals in the UK broadcasting industry, namely the crisis of confidence between audience and broadcasters. With the emergence of interactive television, convergence of technologies, proliferation of television channels, and the advent of call TV, the audience becomes a prized commodity not only in terms of delivering audience figures to advertisers but in creating new forms of direct revenue. Phone-in competitions as an emerging revenue source for broadcasters capture the changing economics of broadcasting, and in the process they also highlight irregularities in production practices and culture which have transformed “empowered audiences” into victims of fraud in an era of participatory television consumption where mobile technologies, scrolling texts on the screen, and premium-rate numbers entice viewers to become part of the programme format. These scandals, while capturing shifts in popular culture, reflect the changing economics and production culture of television broadcasting with the proliferation of satellite and digital channels and fragmented audiences.

Television and Deception

Television is often associated with fantasy and myth and, tangentially, with citizenship and civic engagement. Television is a space for the marriage of real events and fantasies where narrative and cinematic techniques can deliver new image economies enabling both make-believe and the re-telling of events that are consequential for public engagement and private pleasure. Streaming both information and entertainment, the medium is associated equally with the banal and the extraordinary where its presence in the everyday lives of people creates trust as well as the recognition of the biases it can bring through images and sound bites. The Public Service Broadcasting model designates the broadcasting platform as a space that narrates and represents the nation and its peoples subscribing to core values of quality, diversity, respect for the truth, accuracy, fairness, and social cohesion (Thompson) while enacting ways in which to imagine their communion, shared histories, and collective futures. Trust is inherently implied in this paradigm where accountability, objectivity, and quality create both expectation and fulfilment of these broadcasting codes. All five national analogue TV channels (i.e. BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4 and Channel Five) in Britain are public service broadcasters to some extent due to their PSB commitments. The BBC’s legal status is established by a Royal Charter, which is renewable every ten years and each charter is accompanied by an agreement between the government and the corporation that obliges the BBC to transmit programmes conforming to the Reithian ideals “to inform, educate and entertain” (Thompson).

In the case of Blue Peter, Ofcom ruled that the BBC did not take “due care over the physical and emotional welfare and the dignity of people under 18 who are part of or who are otherwise involved in programmes” (“BBC Fined”). It held that the corporation’s conduct led to the “deception of the audience, including child participants who paid to enter the competition.” Nearly 40,000 children called the BBC1 show’s premium-rate phone line on Nov 27 2006 in a competition to win a toy. The technical error and the ensuing deception in this popular children’s programme re-ignited the debates about protecting the young and vulnerable in the broadcast space. Where in the past these debates about television and young audiences have revolved around harm and undesirable influences, these renewed discourses emphasised the new forms of connectivities and deceptions that can happen in television where phone-in competitions and “live” broadcasts create the need to ensure fair play and transparency.

Some critics have touted the Blue Peter phone-in scandal as the biggest crisis that has rocked the public broadcaster since its coverage of the attack on Iraq, where the corporation was criticised by Lord Hutton in the 2003 probe into the death of a British scientist who committed suicide (Majendie). Ofcom’s condemnation of the public broadcaster for the Blue Peter incident comes on the back of another controversy involving the Queen. The broadcaster had trailed a programme which suggested that the Queen had stormed out of a photo shoot with photographer Annie Leibovitz. The production company RDF, which had produced the documentary, later admitted that the sequences of the shoot had been deliberately re-arranged to suggest that the Queen had stormed out of the photo session. The controversy over the incident prompted an internal enquiry into the BBC’s production practices and entailed reviewing one million hours of output since 2005 and culminated in the suspension of all phone-in competitions for BBC TV on 18 July 2007.

The internal enquiry commissioned by BBC Director General Mark Thompson implicated a number of the corporation’s programmes including Children in Need, Comic Relief, Sports Relief, the World Service’s White Label, the CBBC show Tmi, and BBC 6 Music’s Liz Kershaw show, which had featured competitions that duped viewers. The Liz Kershaw show on BBC 6 Music and White Label on the World Service were found to be repeat offenders, while the Liz Kershaw show, which was pre-recorded, was presented as if it were live (Akbar). In another BBC programme, Newsnight producers had altered the chronology of events in a film about Gordon Brown (Garner). The internal enquiry also revealed that “Radio 1, Radio 2 and local BBC stations had also been poorly organised and breached guidelines” (“BBC Suspends”). The revelations of the incidents have been described as a “grim day for the BBC” by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt (Akbar).

In another dramatic turn of events, GMTV’s senior director, Paul Corley resigned to help restore the public’s confidence in the station when it was revealed that it had failed to deliver fair competitions that had effectively cost participants more than four million pounds (“TV Executive”). GMTV had reportedly duped millions of people with its phone-in competition where participants pay £1.80 each to enter a weekday multiple-choice quiz with prizes up to £20,000. While GMTV starts soliciting for calls at the beginning of the programme at 6 a.m. it finalises its shortlist up to 45 minutes before the supposed 9 a.m. deadline, and this means that many callers are not entered into the prize draw (Revoir, “Millions”). Channel Four also announced that it was axing all its profit-making phone-in competitions following an inquiry into its Richard and Judy talk show which encouraged viewers to call one-pound-per-minute phone lines even after finalists had been chosen. Premium call watchdog, Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of the Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS), fined the phone operator for the show a record £150,000. According to ICSTIS’ inquiry five million viewers paid £1 per call but almost half of those calls were received after the short list of winners had been decided (Dugan).

In March 2007, the producers of X Factor admitted that viewers had been overcharged by £200,000 (Revoir, “ITV”). According to the broadcaster Sky Digital, users who voted using the red button on their remote controls had been overcharged by 15p and this was believed to have affected some 1.3m votes (Revoir, “ITV”). Recently, Channel Five has been hit with a £300,000 fine by Ofcom for faking winners in its live call-in competitions in Brainteaster and Memory Bank. This is believed to be the biggest pay-out by a public service broadcaster (“Ofcom”). It was revealed that production staff posed as winners on numerous occasions, and Ofcom has described this as “substantially misleading audiences.” According to the Ofcom report what was an attempt to solve “production difficulties in finding a winner had become an established procedure.” Ofcom ruled that this formalised procedure that had been accepted by the programme was ‘totally unacceptable’ and displayed a total lack of regard for the audience and participants paying to take part in the competitions (“Ofcom”). Channel Five has since discontinued both these programmes.

Beyond the phone-in scandals, the broadcasters have also come under the spotlight for their editorial breaches. Channel Four admitted that it had faked a shoot in chef Gordon Ramsay’s F-word series where he had pretended to have speared sea bass off the Devon coast, when in reality it had been caught by a member of the British spear fishing squad minutes earlier. The TV chef had remarked on camera, “I have got three stunning sea bass. I have never caught a fish from a spear and it’s not bad for the first time out” (Garner). In another documentary on an Alzheimer’s patient, ITV had faked the patient’s death three days before he actually passed away (“ITV Admission”).

The scandals raised a myriad of issues, but the crux of the discourses centred on the issue of deception, integrity, honesty, the audience’s confidence, and the abuse of trust. Ofcom Chief Executive Ed Richards remarked that “phoning a TV show isn’t like ordering a Pizza. When you put the phone down, nothing arrives. You just have to trust that your call was counted” (Majendie). These repeat editorial breaches and abuses of audience trust by the BBC and others with public service broadcasting obligations such as ITV, Channel Four, and Channel Five impresses the endemic nature of this problem in the industry. The use of premium-rate numbers and the maladministration of phone quizzes by telecommunication operators appointed by the broadcasters, deceptions practised by the producers to fake winners, and the number of editorial misrepresentations in documentary and lifestyle programmes highlights new dilemmas for a broadcasting industry that seems to have gambled on its audience’s goodwill and trust.

The Issue of Trust

The according of trust to an entity or person entails a degree of vulnerability on the part of the giver. Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman observe that trust is the “willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the trustor, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control the other party” (qtd. in Mehta 172). With the BBC as a public service broadcaster and ITV, Channel Four, and Channel Five expected to function within the remits and expectations of public service broadcasting principles in the UK, it brings to the fore the fundamental premise on which the relationship between the public and broadcasters is based and the abuse that has occurred in according that trust with these phone-in competitions and editorial breaches.

According to Vian Bakir and David Barlow, “trust is a complex phenomenon comprising many subtleties centred around a relationship between two entities; the trustor (the entity who trusts) and the trustee (the entity who is trusted)” (10-11). The core features of trust, they assert, can include rationality, faith, and confidence. Bakir and Barlow indicate that the waning of trust is a phenomenon in modern society with the manifest erosion of social co-operation, solidarity, and consensus due to increasing deregulation, privatisation and proliferation of individualistic cultures (3). They argue that in empirical terms polls, surveys, and news articles from the 1950s reveal the disintegration of trust in key institutions in tandem with the emergence of “crises of trust” in public debates. The trajectory of media and trust is a problematic one with increasing tabloidisation of news, the saturation of media outlets and content as well as the close association between spin culture and politics. Polls and studies both in the US and the UK reveal a decline in trust mainly due to issues of accuracy and bias associated with the media (See Carlson; Gillespie; Scott; cf. Bakir and Barlow).

Trust in society has been viewed from a functionalist paradigm where the construct provides a “social glue” to maintain social order and cohesion (see Parsons; Durkheim). From a Durkheimian perspective trust develops through a shared consensus on norms and moral codes and is vital in forming solidarity in cultural cohorts. Luhmann (cf. Bakir and Barlow 13) equally emphasised the functional elements of trust by factoring it as an important component through which society manages complexity, particularly where people empower others to solve problems and where these activities cannot be directly monitored. In the modern world the increasing mediatisation of reality and society accords the media power and centrality in people’s everyday lives. Correspondingly, the media’s role in creating a public sphere where citizens can engage and participate in public debates means that trust becomes an intrinsic element in maintaining this link between the public, the public sphere, and the decision makers (Bakir and Barlow 16-17).

However, the increasing commercialisation and tabloidisation of the press and the ‘refeudalisation’ of the public sphere has not been without consequences on the issue of trust. Falling consumer confidence is already evident as ITV’s income from phone lines fell by 20% in March and April 2007 (“Phone-in”). This is affirmed by chief executive Michael Grade as he points out that “the poor execution of these services across the sector has reduced consumer confidence and is having a material impact on premium-rate telephone services revenue” (“Phone-in”).

Audience as Victims

Since the 1980s the emphasis on audience reception of text and resistance to inscribed meanings has seen the emergence of the ‘active’ audience negating the Frankfurt School conception of audiences as passive entities. In the past decade, the term “active audience” has traversed beyond the praxis of meaning making and resistance to signify viewers’ new connectivities with the televisual space. Estella Tincknell and Parvati Raghuram stress that there is a need to rethink the nature of reception and the degree to which audience engagements may be interpreted as resistance with new kinds of “interactive” media texts. These interactive texts, they aptly observe, make the idea of the active audience newly interesting as these forms of interactivity represent a shift in the relationship between audiences and text. Audience participation in determining the outcome of a show has emerged in tandem with lifestyle and reality television and a “post-documentary” culture (Corner) which incorporates the active and technologically activated audience as part of the programming format. The convergence of technologies and the interactive components of digital television and land and mobile communication as well as text messages have contributed to programmes where audience participation is a distinct element of reality and lifestyle television. Audiences are seen as key components in delivering the verdict and outcome of successfully syndicated programmes such as Big Brother, X Factor, and Pop Idol. Beyond lifestyle television, audience participation in news through text messages and blogs has also re-crafted the audience as transgressing the clear boundaries between production and reception. As Jones points out, “in theory the technology underpinning digitally based media products is well placed to support the democratisation of broadcasting with unprecedented opportunities for enhanced levels of interactivity pushing the locus of control from the centre to the periphery” (177). These convergent technologies, Jones contends, foster a sense of agency and mobility broadening public access while eroding the role of the gatekeeper (177).

The use of premium-rate phone services by broadcasters to lure audiences to answer seemingly easy quizzes or to contribute to charitable causes has become a norm providing broadcasters with a new avenue to compensate for the loss of advertising revenue as a result of the proliferation of satellite and digital channels. As Ien Ang points out, “audiences do not exist independently but are themselves produced by the media industry.” With the incorporation of premium-rate phone lines in programme formats, the encroachment of a capitalist agenda in the cultivation of the audience as an entity is even more evident for commercial broadcasting. Such engagements provide an illusion of intimacy and agency with the production space, making the audience believe in its ability to negotiate outcomes with popular votes when it in fact feeds into the capitalist agenda.

The lack of fairness and transparency in administering phone competitions has made audiences vulnerable to production practices, and in view of this the new connectivities created by interactive media have also produced the possibility of audiences succumbing to new forms of deception. Such practices have prompted ICTSIS to change its Code of Practice and to issue stricter obligations on TV companies using premium-rate lines. Callers to programmes must now be informed how many others are calling the programme so that they can assess their chances of getting on air to win prizes, and callers must also be told over the phone if their spending reaches £10 in one day (“UK Threatens”). These measures are seen as a mechanism to restore consumer trust in TV quizzes. The phone-in scandals nevertheless reiterate the possibilities for abuse of the “active” audience in this era of broadcasting where technical glitches and the lack of fair practices can easily turn the audience into victims who need to have their rights protected and be compensated as consumers.

The Nature of the Industry

The shift from analogue to digital, the proliferation of digital and satellite channels, the uptake of personal video recorders (PVRs), which facilitate time-shifted viewing, audience fragmentation, and the fall of advertising revenue across the industry due to increased competition have invariably affected the broadcast industry. The breaking of the duopoly of the BBC and ITV with the establishment of Channel Four and the present concern with “fakery” and “deception” have been blamed on the Thatcherite legacy of the shaking up of the television industry by the two key principles of “choice” and “competition” (Wells and Gibson). In 1985, the Thatcher government was also keen to promote new television delivery mechanisms which eventually led to the licensing and launching of two satellite services by Sky and BSB and the consequent merger of these two services into BSkyB. The issues of keeping costs down, outsourcing, and corporatism have since defined the industry. The BBC embraced the corporate ethos of outsourcing with consecutive governments, and in its 2003 Communications Report it pledged to commission 50% of its programmes from the outside market, keeping its staffing structure lean and treating its licence fee as venture capital (Wells and Gibson).

Ofcom’s inquiry into the Blue Peter incident identified a series of “management and compliance failures” where the production team lacked the experience to run such competitions. According to Michael Grade, a former BBC Chairman who now runs ITV, “there is a wider problem in broadcasting due to the influx of young inexperienced people and they have not been trained properly and do not understand that you do not lie to audiences at any time in any show whether it is news or a quiz” (Garner). According to a BBC News (‘Queen’) report one freelance TV producer working for the BBC, Channel Four, and ITV revealed that there is “a huge pressure to come up with the most dramatic way of putting across their message to boost ratings.” With the deluge of scandals, the BBC feels that it needs to restore Reithian ideals to justify public service broadcasting in an increasingly de-regulated market. In tandem with this, the BBC’s Director General Mark Thompson has announced that all 16,500 programmes and content staff will be required to attend a new mandatory training programme “focusing on the issue of honesty with the audience” (“BBC Suspends”).

The public’s trust in the media’s ability to represent the real was eroded through a series of fakery scandals in the 1990s where the documentary form took a battering (Jones178). The loss of craft in terms of documentary production has also come under scrutiny in post-documentary culture with the hybridisation of genres and fluidity of boundaries between fact, fiction, and entertainment. As John Corner points out, “the relationship between the category of the public and the category of the popular is one of the crucial tensions in the history of post-war Britain and documentary has been right at the heart of the relationship that is now changing in quite crucial ways” (qtd. in Naden, Pompilli and Grigsby). A report released by the ITV Network Centre in January 2003 reveals that the amount of current affairs programming across the main terrestrial channels fell by 35%, the number of arts programmes more than halved, and religious programmes were cut by nearly 75% (Naden, Pompilli and Grigsby). The report also revealed that there has been a 133% increase in shows devoted to hobbies and leisure and a 125% increase in soaps.

With major technical and cultural shifts and with TV advertising slumping, commercial broadcasters are turning to participation and call TV. According to chief executive Jasper Smith of Optimistic Entertainment, the company behind the Quiz Nation Channel, “Britain can claim to be a world beater as there is a greater concentration of this type of programming being produced in Britain than in any other leading television market” (qtd. in Goodman). The lure is twofold: the first being money, the other the sense of community and familiarity offered by a small roster of presenters.

A case in point is ITV launching its own interactive gaming channel ITVPlay on the Freeview platform in 2006 and Channel Four’s Quiz Call, a satellite channel which was reportedly making profits after just eight months (Goodman). The economics of call TV comprise a shoestring budget, where an hour of programming can cost less than £1,000, and the generation of revenue from up to 20,000 premium-rate calls in 10 or 12 hours of broadcasting per day. One of the first shows on ITV Play was a pub quiz set in the Rovers Return, the pub in Coronation Street, capitalising on both intertextuality and the trust vested in one of its most popular programmes. It was an irony that when ITV entered the call TV market it was believed that its big advantage was that it was a trusted brand and that viewers were confident that they would not be ripped off and would get paid promptly if they won (Goodman).


The television space is conducive for both deception and make-believe. However it conveys the implicit editorial/artistic contract that exists between the producer and consumer where the existence of manipulation, alteration, and editing are seen as apparent and necessary for some kinds of communication (Gumpert and Drucker 195). Visual and artistic manipulation stands apart from the types of fakery and deception that have been illuminated through the recent scandals. The new convergent technologies were seen as a means to foster new forms of agency and to create degrees of fluidity between the boundaries of production and reception. Instead they have renewed scepticism and increased media fatigue, shaking the very foundation of the relationship between the audience and broadcasting.

Author Biography

Yasmin Ibrahim