Who is the most dumb in this situation? The people in the Big Brother house getting voted on or off? Or those paying 50p a throw to vote them on or off - and then complain en masse to Ofcom when the programme producer Endemol decided to sneak in an extra vote? Rather than just say "to hell with it" and turn over to watch something with a vague hint of neural stimulation, close to a thousand decided to ring up the regulator, Ofcom, and moan about Endemol's greed.
In this case, Endemol has said it won't profit from the latest wheeze - the profits will go to charity, the company claimed. However, the company has made no secret about its willingness to make extra cash from what it calls "brand exploitation" (as opposed to viewer exploitation). If you look at Endemol's most recent financial reports, the company has seen a lot of extra money pile in from adding more and more premium-rate dial-in and Short Message Service (SMS) text response opportunities to its programmes. Some of its shows are now purely about getting viewers to pay through the nose to take part.
In the first half of this year, digital media sales grew almost 40 per cent, compared with the same period a year ago, from €37.6m to €52.0m. For Endemol, digital media means money from phone calls and texts, plus sales of interactive services on phones and computers. The company does not break out sales within that group, but the company notched up 180 million calls or texts in the first half of the year from brand exploitation. Another 100 million were for dedicated interactive shows. I think we can guess where most of the money is coming from for the digital media group, which now accounts for about a tenth of Endemol's turnover. The UK, by the way, is now Endemol's best-performing territory.
Jeff Jarvis thought all this complaining to Ofcom was an example of over-regulation. I'm not sure how public complaints amount to over-regulation - Ofcom has not actually done anything. It would be tough: any regulator is going to have a tough time ruling on something like this in less than a working day. Maybe Jarvis should have had a gander at the broadcasting code. Here's the relevant bit of section 10:
10.9 Premium rate numbers will normally be regarded as products or services, and must therefore not appear in programmes, except where:
they form part of the editorial content of the programme;
they fall within the meaning of programme-related material.
10.10 Any use of premium rate numbers must comply with the Code of Practice issued by the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS).
Basically, unless there is some other regulation that applies to this situation, Ofcom is not about to slap Endemol on the wrist (so, no Jeff, it is not over-regulation). If you want to punish Endemol, stop watching and ridicule your mates for continuing to watch it. Although you really should have been doing that in the first place.
Should Ofcom beef up the code to prevent programmer makers from minting it from premium-rate calls? There is an underlying question: how much money do you spend on trying to save people from their own stupidity? I contend that the answer depends on how much their dumbness damages other people. Therefore, preventing bad or vindictive driving and excessive gambling seem to be good ideas. They don't just damage the people who take part, but usually damage lots of people around them. Excessive texting or phoning to TV shows? Fashion will probably do more damage to this quickly than any amount of regulation that Ofcom could come up with. Maybe we will see "I was a text-TV widow" stories appear, but I'm not holding my breath.