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Big Brother refunds Facebook credits after vote crash blunder

Deal with punters keeps Ofcom sweet

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Ofcom has let Channel 5 off the hook after it agreed to let Big Brother viewers carry over surplus Facebook credits, or get a refund, if they were unable to vote in the show's evictions.

The last series of Big Brother was a UK telly first by accepting votes through the use of paid-for Facebook credits. However, these had to be bought in advance and at the last minute overloaded servers left some viewers unable to vote. They complained to Ofcom, and the broadcaster decided that viewers could carry over, or get a refund on, the credit rather than face any censure from the regulator.

Big Brother is a TV show which sees a selection of social misfits locked in a house, with viewers invited to select who they'd like to see kicked out until the least-offensive participant wins the game. At one point the show was entirely funded by viewers' votes, which are submitted as premium-rate SMS messages, and despite the falling audience, the voting revenue is critical to the show's success.

To increase that source of income, the programme's bosses had to make it easier to vote, which was the point of introducing Facebook voting. Facebook credits, costing 6.5 pence each, were bought in blocks of 10 or 50, with each credit being worth one vote. That made voting cheaper for the viewers, but brought in a similar amount for the broadcaster as the mobile network operators weren't involved.

But when it came to the crunch, ten minutes before the final vote closed, the systems become overloaded and a number of votes didn't get processed in time. Prospective voters got angry as the Terms & Conditions were clear that no refund would be available, and the credits would not be carried over to another series of Big Brother.

Channel 5 has recanted on both those issues, and promises nine-times more server capacity next time around, which was enough for it to escape any further action by the regulator. Ofcom also noted that there weren't enough unrecorded votes to change the outcome of the show, which must be a relief for Channel 5.

But it is a bump in the road while on the way to more flexible revenue generation. Voting by text has worked well for years, but creating messages and typing in numbers is more complicated than tapping on a face on a screen, and easy voting means more revenue. We're in the middle of a one-year trial permitting voting-within-applications, which runs until August 20, after which Ofcom will decide whether to make it permanent.

As first steps go this was a small stumble, but unlikely to shake the industry's faith in the concept. ®

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