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Ofcom reins in TV psychics and adult chat

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Ofcom is proposing new rules for TV and radio shows which use premium-rate phone lines to raise revenue, with a view to ensuring that editorial and advertising are kept separate.

The new rules will apply to any show that provides a premium-rate number, even in a peripheral role, and aims to ensure that promotion of the phone service never becomes the sole purpose of the programme. This is particularly obvious with adult-chat services and psychic hotlines, which sometimes feature a host discussing incoming, premium-rated, messages. The UK regulator feels that's an advertisement, and should be subject to advertising rules.

With revenue from TV advertising falling, companies leapt to create programming dependent on premium-rate services. The scramble culminated in the UK edition of Big Brother which was largely self-financing, with the advert breaks being pure profit for Channel 4.

Recent scandals have curtailed that growth but phonelines still provide a significant income, and Ofcom is keen to ensure programmes don't become solely vehicles for promoting them. UK TV has always insisted that programmes mustn't promote products, forcing a generation to use terms such as "sticky tape" in order to avoid mentioning household names on TV, but the slow growth of personal video recorders could eventually make product placement the only way to pay for television programmes.

Until that day Ofcom will be on hand to make sure the ad breaks are long enough to get the kettle on, and don't intrude into our programming. The new rules use terms like "undue prominence" and "primary purpose", which should hold back the tide despite being heavily open to interpretation.

Interested parties can comment on the proposals before 22nd May. ®

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