Ofcom today announced tough new regulations to stop broadcasters abusing premium rate telephone services.

The changes would make broadcasters directly responsible for shows they broadcast even if phone services are contracted out. Ofcom would also carry out spot checks of television channels to make sure new rules are being followed.

It plans to alter broadcasters' licences so the regulations are enforceable. The regulator today said it would press ahead with the new rules, having allowed interested parties to respond, despite opposition from some.

ITV has rejected most of the main proposals including, along with Five, the notion that there should be a licence change at all.

The main changes planned are:
  • Broadcasters are "directly responsible" responsible for the handling of all communications when they invite participation.
  • Independent third parties must verify all systems used in PRS voting and competitions.
  • Ofcom will carry out "an initial 12 to 18 month programme of unannounced spot-checks" to make sure rules are followed.
  • New guidance for licencees on how to run competitions properly.
  • PhonepayPlus regulations will mean all firms proving premium rate services need prior permission.
Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards said the moves would protect viewers and help restore trust. He said: "Viewers must be confident that they will be treated fairly and consistently when interacting with television programmes... Ofcom will not hesitate to take firm action with broadcasters who step out of line and mislead people."

The regulator is also planning a further look at whether to reclassify shows using premium rate telephone services as advertising rather than editorial. All the moves follow a report by Richard Ayre on the cause of several scandals in shows using premium rate phoning.

During the consultation phase, ITV told Ofcom that lack of trust was not as big an issue as some suggested: "Many of ITVís programmes are showing strong participation levels, suggesting a level of consumer confidence and demonstrating the popularity of such interactions within programmes."

It accepted broadcasters should have "primary responsibility" for participation but added: "ITV questions whether broadcasters can and should be solely responsible for all elements of participation in TV... it is important to recognise that failure may occur in circumstances outside the broadcasterís control.

"Broadcasters should be judged in relation to the adequacy or diligence of their oversight of all the processes that go to enable interaction, rather than be subject to a strict liability for any failure anywhere in the chain."

ITV also rejected the need for independent bodies to come in and check its use of premium rate services: "As ITV has argued above, the voluntary steps taken by industry to improve the operation of participation services will be the most effective way of addressing the problems that have arisen to date, and restoring viewer trust. Ofcom has wide ranging powers of investigation already and can call for information in the event there is a suspected breach of the Code."

Five joined ITV in saying broadcasters should not take total responsibility: "...as a publisher/broadcaster Five is dependent on independent production companies and other suppliers for the production and full execution of our programmes. Irrespective of how much we strengthen our compliance procedures, there will always be a risk of us being held responsible for actions not our fault."

Ofcom rejected the arguments: "Some respondents argued that the introduction of a verification scheme would be too burdensome. We do not agree: our view is that if broadcasters are not willing to implement suitable oversight for these revenue-generating premium rate service applications they should not use them."