Channel 5 has had its wrist slapped severely by the broadcasting regulator Ofcom. In what is reportedly one of the largest fines ever imposed by Ofcom it has imposed a £300,000 penalty for breach of the broadcasting code in relation to its program Brainteaser.
The specific element of the code which Channel 5 has been found to have breached is “Rule 2.11: “Competitions should be conducted fairly, prizes should be described accurately, and rules should be clear and appropriately made known.” The current decision relates specifically to editions of the show transmitted on 25 January, 15 February (two occasions),
20 February and 6 March 2007. It was also stated that longstanding failures by Channel 5 to comply in relation to not only Brainteaser but also Memory Bank dating back to 2003 were also taken into account.
Brainteaser was described as a live daytime game show as part of which viewers were invited to phone a premium rate number to enter instant anagram competitions for cash prizes. The program was produced for Channel 5 by Cheetah, a branch of the production company Endemol. The same company was also responsible for the other program mentioned in the decision.
The Content Sanctions Committee heard that on several occasions the production team had failed to find a winner within the time allowed and so in order to bring the competition to a close it had announced fake names as winners and on some occasions production staff had posed as said winners. The initial information provided by Channel 5 following its suspension of the program related to instance discovered between January and March 2007 but on further investigation it found similar instances dating back to 2003. Four instances of unfair conduct were also found in respect of the spin of show Money Bank in 2004.
The Committee stated that it “was in no doubt that Channel 5 had acted in good faith at all times and had not intended its service to deceive the audience. It clearly had extensive compliance procedures in place through which it sought to ensure compliance and had regularly monitored and reviewed the procedures for conducting the competitions. Further, Channel 5 took comprehensive steps retrospectively to remedy harm caused by the unfair conduct of its competitions and fully co-operated with Ofcom once the unfair conduct came to light.”
However in concluding the Committee asserted that it “considered that this was the most serious case it had dealt with, to date, with respect to a public service broadcaster … This was not a misjudgment by the programme makers in a case which required a judgment to be made in an area of editorial discretion but involved a deliberate decision to fake winners on air – on more than one occasion as part of an established pre-planned procedure which was used when conducting competitions on air.
Irrespective of any remedial action taken after the event by a broadcaster, Ofcom considers that it is essential that the broadcast industry recognizes and acknowledges that practices which mislead the audience are unacceptable in any form. These issues go to the very heart of the trust between the broadcaster and its audience and undermines that relationship.”
In addition to the £300,000 penalty the Committee also directed that Channel 5 should broadcast a statement of Ofcom’s findings on two occasions, in a format to be determined by Ofcom.