John Walker's Electronic House

Phoney Phone-Ins

by on Mar.15, 2007, under The Rest

I’m thoroughly enjoying the increasing nonsense over these premium rate phone-in television competitions. I missed out on an excellent opportunity for feeling smug when I forgot to publically declare that the whole system would unravel after the Richard & Judy incident. So rather belatedly I’ll state: it’s going to get a whole lot sillier before it goes away.

The key thing to remember is: everything on TV is a lie.

This seems too extreme or too cynical a position to take, but yet it remains true. Pick the most innocent programme you can think of, and it will be lying to you.

Take Pet Rescue. I’ve no idea if that ridiculous programme is still on air, but a few years back it was a daily broadcast on BBC2, chronicling the minute events in the lives of an animal rescue centre. They would follow rescued pets to their new homes, and celebrate the endless loveliness of a Disney designed world. A friend of my family was on the programme, rescuing a tortoise. The animal turned out to be very sick, and was eventually put down. But that’s not quite how it was shown on the show. In fact, in TV Land the shelled beast is still living in perpetual happiness in their home, saved from his previous misery. A producer has a quick word with the member of the public, explains that they need to film the animal at their home for a bit before it’s taken to the vet for bye-byes, and then the magical version of life’s cruelty is cobbled together. Does it matter? No. Is it better TV their way? Yes.

Or how about cuddly afternoon competition, Ready Steady Cook. A university friend was featured, and discovered that she in no way got to spend her “£5” on her bag’s contents, but was instead presented with them and told why she’d chosen them. She’d never even seen a green lentil before, let alone ate them “all the time, because I’m a student,” as she was instructed to say. The twenty minutes ran out, so the cameras stopped while the chefs finished off cooking. Does it matter? No. Is it better TV that way? Yes.

Everything from Blue Peter faking a competition winner to every local news report being a cavalcade of bullshit is for one reason: it makes better television. Blue Peter (currently scrambling over itself to apologise and not get dragged down into the mire with ITV Play’s quite separate scandal, as the press merrily pretend they’re all the same thing), had two choices: Say, “Sorry everyone, even though we’ve been hyping this competition for the last half hour, and asking you all to ask permission to spend 10p on a phonecall, there was a technical glitch and there’s no winner. See you all next time when Simon will be absailing into a volcano, and Butterscotch will show you how to make a new Trident system for under a billion pounds.”; or botch it for better TV. This time they got caught, and now they’re pretending they care. The few dozen other times they’ll have had the production team mock up cardboard entries for an ignored competition didn’t merit a four-way on-air grovel, because, er, no one knew (“cared”).

What ITV Play were doing was extortion. Deliberately posing impossible questions (the missing “correct” answer for the “contents of a woman’s handbag”? “Rawl plugs,” of course!) in order to entice viewers to sit on redial with their 75p-a-call line is a clever con. Even more impressive is the way all such channels (CHANNELS! There are channels exclusively dedicated to impossible phone-in competitions!) give the impression that no one’s calling. You watch the cute presenter looking so desperate, trying to fill yet another awkward gap between their chiming phone sfx’s appearance, talking increasingly nonsensical babble while their eyes flick back and forth as if they might at any moment explode in panic. The viewer is intended to think, “Wow, this is so funny! This poor woman’s got to ask this question for four hours, and no one’s phoning in! Well, it’s £30,000 if I get it right, and it seems like they need the calls. What the hell.” Then when they call they find they don’t even get through to a switchboard, but instead are informed that, regrettably, their call hasn’t been selected, but they can find solace in the cost of their fruitless call reaching the coffers of whichever unscrupulous organisation is running the scam. They are, of course, receiving numerous calls, but as the on-screen information informs, your call may not reach the studio, but keep on trying!

But that, of course, has very little to do with Channel 5’s dreadful afternoon puzzle show, Brainteaser, faking winners’ names when they didn’t get any correct answers. What else should they do? Put, “No one with a modicum of intelligence is calling in,” on the screen? Funny as that would be, it would be Bad TV. So inventing a few Michael Fartenburys is the far more elegant solution.

When I worked at Talk Radio, we had a competition that was run at about 5am every morning. A short clip of a famous song was played, and callers would phone in with their guesses as to what it might be. Surprisingly at that hour, we’d get a lot of calls, and it was my job to fill the six lines with five wrong answers and one right one. That made good radio. The presenter would then work his way through the calls until he got to a right answer, and a prize would be awarded. Of course, in order to do this I had to find five wrong answers, and if the clip was too easy, this could often be hard work. So there I’d be, pretending to write down the phone numbers of correct callers, letting them know they might get called back if they’re selected, trying to find those who’d got it wrong. Once I had five, I’d then take the next right answer to come in, and stick him up there. It was as arbitrary as any other system of course, but all ridiculous nonsense from start to finish. Clever callers caught on, mostly because the presenter was so idiotic as to always insist on five wrong answers every single night, which made it stand out rather. They’d phone in with a dummy wrong answer, I’d put them up on the board with the answer they were going to give, and then on air they’d produce the correct name. The presenter would then trip over himself in confusion, flap about as he tried to find the winner’s sound effect he’d not thought he’d need to press, and then go apoplectic as soon as we went to adverts. The point being, even the most obscure and ill-placed phone in compos are faked. All of them. Get used to it.

So as every show is scrutinised, and the public start speaking up about the time they were asked to pretend to love their new front room or that they’d found a £500 vase in their attic, more of these are going to appear. The quite valid stance against programmes asking callers to dial premium rate phone numbers for competitions they cannot possibly win is the gateway for all this fiction to be discovered. It’s going to be rather fun.

What do you think? Call 0870 5 56 57 now to let us know!

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7 Comments for this entry

  • antichaos

    I’m sure you know but…Someone I knew worked at the local radio station in Guildford. She would sometimes have to call up her friends and ask them to call the station with an answer to a competition question (which she fed them) and then to act ecstatic when they won. I’m not sure whether this was because they didn’t get many callers, or because the ones they got couldn’t be bothered to be excited about winning, which doesn’t make good radio.

  • Smee

    Thank you. That was wonderful.

  • RAM Raider

    “The key thing to remember is: everything on TV is a lie.”

    Almost as if they’re trying to compete with the games mags.

  • Steve W

    Oh lordy, yes. Everybody lies in TV land. What never fails to surprise me though, is how stupid some of these programme-makers think we are. Most don’t even bother to conceal their duplicity.

    There’s the TELEPORTING CAMERA, for example, where a show (be it Garden Force or some such wankery) presents us with the scene of a presenter’s knocking on the door of a supposedly-unsuspecting member of the public. As the door is answered, the camera view switches to a shot from INSIDE the property, showing said supposedly-unsuspecting member of the public answering the door.

    The TELEPORTING CAMERA pops up in all kinds of places. Another such show I saw recently had its presenter becoming a motorcycle courier for the day. One of his jobs was to collect a package someone had left at their flat and race it to the airport in time for a flight. Despite the fact that this was supposed to be a genuine race against the clock, they somehow still had the time to show the presenter’s journey from at least a dozen fixed positions along the route.

    They did the exact same thing when he posed as a firefighter a couple of weeks later; unless the producers were actually responsible for setting the blaze, their remarkable prescience should now result in their being cut open and tested in the same secret Govt. lab as our Derren.

    I don’t care particularly that these scenes were staged, either wholly or after the event; it just annoys me that they think I’m too stupid to notice.

  • John

    One of my favourites was Michael Palin’s original Around The World In 80 Days. He was stuck in the middle of nowhere, and the whole expedition looked like it was going to end in failure. And then there was hope – one last wagon was leaving, the last for days, and he managed to secure passage. He’s fears of miserable starvation and death were averted. We saw the wagon pulling away, and then, best of all, disappearing over the horizon. Presumably the tapes of this shot were recovered from the dead bodies of the production crew when people returned months later.

  • Steve W

    Chortle. They did the same thing in…Sahara, I think it was. This time a train is shown disappearing into the distance, a lonely Palin aboard as his camera crew is left in the desert to rot.

  • Tedi Worrier

    What? That nice Mr Palin …. surely not!

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