Broadcasters on Eggshells

Emma Hall From London

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The news that gambling ads are to be allowed on U.K. TV comes just as the TV phone-in has been at the center of a huge scandal.

As marketers divert their budgets from TV advertising, U.K. broadcasters are turning to premium-rate phone lines to raise cash. The trouble started when it was revealed that callers vying to take part in a competition on daytime TV were encouraged to keep calling, even when the participant had already been chosen.

Since then, a whole raft of dodgy practices has come to light. Callers were invited to phone in at premium rates to a "live" show that was in fact recorded (a fact revealed by the time on the presenter's watch); the names of fictional winners were flashed on screen; and various unspecified "technical glitches" are also under fire.

It seems that program ideas are dreamed up purely to exploit the use of these premium-rate phone numbers. As well as the quizzes, there are shows such as "Pop Idol," "Dancing on Ice," "Strictly Come Dancing," "Big Brother," "Fame Academy" and "Celebrity Love Island" that actively encourage viewers to dial in multiple votes, as presenters dramatize the closeness of the competition.

Phone entries for TV quizzes are down 40%-50% since the scandal broke. Reputations are vital -- since the trust of consumers is an important tool for broadcasters, a lot of effort must go into cleaning up the process and regaining public confidence.

Meanwhile, Lady Luck has smiled upon those same broadcasters, who can now look forward to increased revenue from gambling when ads for casinos and gambling sites are allowed on TV starting in September.

We are more used to seeing advertising freedoms eroded as the marketing industry takes the blame for obesity, alcohol and smoking. So it feels strange that a pastime as controversial as gambling is given the all-clear.

Obviously, there are rules: Ads cannot promote gambling as a solution to financial problems. Nor can they "portray, condone or encourage" behavior that could lead to "financial, emotional or social harm."

It is said that in every bet there is a fool and a thief. Both the gambling industry and the broadcasters must do everything they can to avoid earning the label of thief, and to make sure they don't treat their punters like fools.

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Emma Hall is Advertising Age's reporter in London and wouldn't dream of gambling away her hard-earned cash.
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