BRITISH television channel ITV faces a fine of up to £70 million ($A160 million) after some of its flagship Saturday night shows were at the centre of the most blatant examples yet of viewer deceit involving rigged phone-in competitions.
Admitting a "serious cultural failure within ITV", executive chairman Michael Grade said he was shocked by the scale of the revelations.
Viewers wasted £7.8 million ($17.8m) on premium phone calls they thought were influencing their favourite programs, with the full bill for the scandal running to £18 million.
In one case, on a variety show called Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, viewers were invited to call or send text messages to vie for the chance to ride a giant model pig that spewed out cash called the Jiggy Bank.
Investigators concluded that ITV had failed to inform viewers that only entrants who lived within an hour's travel of the pig, which was moved around Britain from week to week, would be considered. In addition, rather than selecting a winner at random, as advertised, the producers drew up shortlists of potential participants and, in at least one case, chose the entrant who promised to be the "most entertaining".
In other examples of abuse, the production team on Soapstar Superstar ignored viewer votes and picked songs they thought more suitable for contestants to sing. On one occasion, two contestants were thrown off, despite not finishing last in the viewer vote.
The broadcaster this week immediately halted all voting by text message and interactive TV.
The investigation into premium phone line abuse at ITV, ordered by Mr Grade after problems across all broadcasters came to light this year, revealed a culture of deceit going back years.
It found "serious editorial issues" with three programs and highlighted "serious technical issues" with two more. The review accused producers of "applying editorial discretion" in selecting winners unfairly, and said they had not fully considered the impact of their actions.
Scotland Yard said it would consider investigating ITV if the independent television regulator Ofcom asked it to.
Shows presented by Ant and Dec emerged as the biggest culprits, with viewers wasting £6.5 million calling them. The two stars said they had "no idea" problems existed and ITV executives tried to protect the pair, despite their role as executive producers on the show, which is co-produced by their production company.
ITV embraced premium phone lines to compensate for declining advertising revenues. But the activities uncovered by the report were "almost daylight robbery", Work and Pensions Secretary Peter Hain said. "People were tricked and conned into getting rid of millions of pounds on an absolutely false prospectus," he said. "People paid their money in on the basis of what they believed was the case, and found their money was being smuggled away and robbed from them — that's very serious indeed."
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