UK's OFCOM Investigates Channel 5 Big Brother Voting Scandal via Facebook Credits

written by: Richard Kastelein

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The UK’s media regulator will consider the reliability of social networks as premium-rate TV interaction mechanisms, after Britain’s first ever use of Facebook Credits to engage with a TV show triggered a number of complaints to OFCOM last year during the 2011 series of Big Brother. Customers had to buy at least 10 vote credits but some were unable to use votes they paid for.

Big Brother was the first television programme broadcast in the UK that invited viewers to pay to vote via the social networking website Facebook and viewers wishing to vote using this method were required to purchase votes with Facebook Credits, with one credit buying one vote.

The cost of one vote was approximately 6.5p and votes were sold in blocks with a minimum spend of between 65p and £3.26 depending on the route of purchase. Viewers were told on air and when buying Facebook credits to purchase votes that they had to use those votes by the time voting closed in the Live Final. Viewers could also vote by dialling a premium rate telephone number.

On several occasions during the Live Final, presenter Brian Dowling invited viewers to vote and gave details of both methods. Ofcom received seven complaints from viewers who had been unable to access the Big Brother Facebook page during the final stages of the voting window. Therefore, they were unable to place votes that they had already purchased.

Ofcom considered that the case raised issues warranting investigation under Rule 2.14 of the Code which states:

“Broadcasters must ensure that viewer and listeners are not materially misled about any broadcast competition or voting.” We therefore sought comments from Channel 5 Broadcasting Limited (“Channel 5” or “the Licensee”) as to how the vote complied with this rule.

 

Mobile Interactive Group (MIG) enabled the Facebook Credits technology for its broadcast clients in April 2011; iPlatform built the voting app. But the blame appears to lie with the Facebook platform itself.

Channel 5 told Ofcom:

“...carefully planned the use of the Facebook application and server capability based on reasonable estimates of expected voting patterns using a new voting service”. But its Facebook app was “temporarily overloaded due to exceptionally high traffic levels across the entire Big Brother application (i.e. not just traffic from those wishing to vote)” so “the server was unable to cope with the surge in traffic”.

Ofcom has not levelled available sanctions against Channel 5 but warned the broadcaster it must comply with its Broadcasting Code.

Historically, Ofcom has only allowed paid interaction with TV shows via phone and SMS. But a trial is in effect by which engagement is allowed by means like mobile apps social networks.

 

 

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