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Broadcast Bulletin Issue number 129 - 09|03|09

BritCops: Frontline, Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends: UFOs, The X Factor, Complaints by Mr D, Mr Clement Dortie, Mr Kulwarn Cheema & Mr Michael Shrimpton

Standards Cases

In Breach

Brit Cops: Frontline Crime
Bravo, 8 January 2009, 17:00

Introduction

In this episode of Brit Cops: Frontline Crime, the fly on the wall documentary series, a camera crew followed police officers patrolling the streets of Plymouth in the early hours of the morning. Ofcom received two complaints from viewers who heard repeated uses of the words “fuck” and “fucking” as the police reprimanded members of the public for drunk and disorderly conduct.

Response

Virgin Media, which is responsible for compliance of Bravo, explained that a version of the programme with the offensive language bleeped out and suitable for broadcast at 17:00 had been scheduled. However, due to a technical error by their outsourced play-out provider, an unedited version was played out instead. As soon as the broadcaster was alerted to the error it investigated how the mistake occurred. As a consequence a number of processes have been put into place to prevent any recurrence.

The broadcaster acknowledged the seriousness of this incident and apologised unreservedly to the complainants for the error.

Decision

The Code requires that licensees do not broadcast the most offensive language before the watershed. The repeated use of the words “fuck” and “fucking” in this episode of Brit Cops: Frontline Crime were clear examples of such language.
Ofcom noted the broadcaster’s apology and that this error occurred as a result of a technical problem. Nonetheless, all broadcasters are required to put in place robust procedures that ensure the most offensive language is not broadcast before the watershed. Ofcom has therefore recorded a breach of Rule 1.14.

Breach of Rule 1.14


In Breach

Louis Therouxs Weird Weekends: UFOs
Dave, 4 January 2009 at 20:00

Introduction

Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends is a documentary series which follows Louis Theroux around the world as he reports on obscure and obsessive sub-cultures. The series was originally broadcast on BBC Two and was repeated on the channel Dave.
This particular episode was entitled “UFOs” and featured several people in the south west of the United States who believe in extra-terrestrials and UFOs. During the programme Louis Theroux met two local businessmen who were feuding over their competing businesses. When discussing their rift the men used language such as “fuck” and “bald faced fucker” on four occasions. Three viewers complained about the broadcast of this language before the watershed.
The Dave channel is operated and complied by UKTV. Ofcom wrote to UKTV, asking it to comment under Rule 1.14 (the most offensive language must not be broadcast before the watershed).

Response

UKTV accepted that the expletives should not have been used in the broadcast. It apologised for any offence caused and explained that the bad language was included as a result of human error. The programme was assessed as requiring language edits for a 20:00 broadcast, but the edit was incorrectly scheduled for a date after the programme was transmitted. In response to the error, UKTV said that it has implemented additional compliance measures to ensure that programmes are correctly scheduled for pre- and post- watershed broadcast and appropriately edited. It also stated that it broadcast an on-air apology before the transmission of the next episode the following week.

Decision

Rule 1.14 prohibits the broadcast of the most offensive language before the watershed. Ofcom research on offensive language[ (-1-)] identified that “fuck” and its derivatives were considered by viewers to be very offensive.
Ofcom notes that the broadcast of this language on this occasion occurred as a result of human error. We also welcome UKTV’s on-air apology the following week and note that it has made subsequent steps to improve its compliance as a result. However, the broadcast of such language before the 21:00 watershed is a clear breach of Rule 1.14.

Breach of Rule 1.14
Footnotes:

1.- “Language and Sexual Imagery in Broadcasting: A Contextual Investigation”, September 2005


Not In Breach

The X Factor
ITV1, Various dates 2008

Introduction

The X Factor is a popular musical talent show broadcast weekly from late summer until Christmas. A combination of a panel of four judges and viewers’ votes decide which act wins the prize of a £1,000,000 recording contract.

The programme is broadcast live on Saturday nights and invites viewers to vote for their favourite act via a premium rate telephone number. The two contestants who receive the fewest votes must perform again in a ‘sing off’. The judges then decide which of the two acts to eliminate from the competition. In the final three weeks, the outcome is determined solely by viewers’ votes.

Ofcom received 944 complaints about the voting mechanism or how the competition was conducted. The majority of complainants raised one or more of the following issues:

  1. they experienced problems getting through when attempting to vote and thus, they believed, some of the results were unfair. The highest volume of complaints of this nature related to editions broadcast on 1 and 8 November 2008, on which contestants Austin Drage and Laura White were eliminated respectively;
  2. the number they dialled did not correspond with the message advising which contestant a vote had been recorded for;
  3. during one particular recap of the voting numbers broadcast on 18 October 2008, the telephone number allocated to contestant Ruth Lorenzo was incorrect and as such, she may not have received all of the votes intended for her; and
  4. contestant Diana Vickers was unable to perform in the contest on 8 November owing to illness and therefore automatically went through to the subsequent week. Some complainants thought this was unfair on the other contestants.

Response

Channel Television Ltd (“Channel TV”), an ITV licence holder, which is responsible for compliance of the programme on behalf of the ITV network (ITV1) responded to Ofcom. At Ofcom’s request, Channel Television supplied information about the performance of the voting platform and the incident on 18 October 2008 during the recap of voting numbers.

Like many programmes that involve public voting, the BT Recorded Information Delivery Equipment (RIDE) platform was used. BT’s RIDE is a termination platform capable of handling around 200,000 votes per minute, irrespective of the phone service provider used by the caller. Additionally, calls reach RIDE using the first generic eight digits [the ‘stem digits’] of the premium rate number (in this case 09016161). Once calls reach the platform, the last three digits identifying each contestant determine who a vote is recorded for. It therefore gives no priority to callers dialling a particular number and does not differentiate between mobile and landline telephone calls.

In order to monitor RIDE’s performance, Channel Television and the programme’s premium rate telephony provider, Harvest Media, checked voting lines before, during and after each show from various landline and mobile service providers. Similar checks were done on the audio message attached to each number to ensure that it corresponded with the correct contestant. Channel Television has explained that any failures would have been automatically flagged to the network management team for their immediate attention.

Channel Television said that although the RIDE platform can get busy during certain periods (for example, when lines first open), BT reported no capacity issues. Channel Television also requested performance reports on the exchanges local to the home towns of contestants Austin Drage and Laura White (who were eliminated on 1 and 8 November 2008) but again, BT recorded no congestion problems.

In its response, the broadcaster included several examples of complainants who had contacted them claiming the automated message advising of their vote did not match the telephone number they had dialled. However, it transpired they had either misdialled or used the number allocated to the same contestant the previous week. (The contestants’ identifying final phone digits change from week to week.)

Channel Television acknowledged that on the show broadcast on 18 October 2008 a single digit was missing from Ruth Lorenzo’s voting number when the full range of numbers were promoted using a ‘split screen’ device soon after lines opened. Nevertheless, it argued that the number was on-screen for less than five seconds and that on all other occasions, it was displayed correctly. It also provided voting data that indicated there was no significant change in the momentum of votes Ms Lorenzo was receiving in the moments after the error. It added that as the number was incomplete, callers would not have accessed any service and as such, no charge would have been applied. Notwithstanding this, it regretted the error and implemented additional checks into its standard procedures for subsequent programmes.

Decision

Ofcom sought and received substantial information and comment from Channel Television. The information included voting figures from the RIDE platform and evidence relating to misdialled calls. Generally, the licensee confirmed that no technical breakdowns or errors of any sort had occurred over the series.

Addressing viewers’ concerns in turn:

  1. they experienced problems getting through when attempting to vote and thus, they believed, some of the results were unfair. The highest volume of complaints of this nature related to editions broadcast on 1 and 8 November 2008;

Ofcom can confirm that the design of the RIDE system means it cannot give priority to calls for any particular contestant. All the contestants’ voting lines begin with the same eight ‘stem’ digits. Once calls have reached the platform the last three digits of the number dialled determine which contestant the vote is registered for. Therefore even if a particularly high number of calls are made to the RIDE platform at any one time, no single contestant can be disadvantaged.

Ofcom noted the broadcaster’s confirmation that there were no significant problems or capacity issues on the RIDE platform or within the BT Network during the voting windows. Ofcom also recognised that Channel Television could not make similar assurances for mobile operators, cable networks (e.g. Virgin Media) or Carrier Pre-select providers that use BT’s infrastructure (e.g. Talk Talk, Sky Talk, Tiscali) and in any event, that it that would be unreasonable to make it accountable for network performance beyond its control.

  1. the number they dialled did not correspond with the message advising which contestant a vote had been recorded for;

Taking into account the extensive checking procedure, the small number of complaints of this nature and evidence provided by the licensee of proven instances of misdialling, Ofcom concluded that there was no other likely explanation other than viewers misdialling.

  1. during one particular recap of the voting numbers broadcast on 18 October 2008, the telephone number allocated to contestant Ruth Lorenzo was incorrect and as such, she may not have received all of the votes intended for her;

Ofcom considered this an unfortunate error. Even so, our decision must reflect the degree of actual (financial) harm this mistake might have caused to viewers. Having reviewed the telephony report provided, we find that the incident did not materially influence voting patterns or, importantly, the outcome – particularly as Ms Lorenzo progressed to the subsequent week without participating in the ‘sing off’. Given the broadcaster’s swift implementation of more robust procedures, Ofcom does not believe further regulatory action is warranted in this instance.

  1. contestant Diana Vickers was unable to perform in the contest on 8 November owing to illness and therefore automatically went through to the subsequent week. Some complainants thought this was unfair on the other contestants.

Ofcom noted that the absence of Ms Vickers was explained from the outset and that no opportunity to vote for her was given. The decision to allow to her to advance to the following week presented no possibility of material harm to viewers and as such rested entirely with the broadcaster and production team.

It is important that Ofcom is clear that the terms on which participants compete, including decisions that have to be made during a contest because of unforeseen events, are generally matters for the broadcaster to decide. Ofcom is not responsible for the design of ‘reality’ or talent shows. We will intervene in circumstances only where we consider viewers to have been misled or otherwise improperly disadvantaged.

In summary, the data available to Ofcom did not indicate shortcomings in the series design, editorial judgment or administrative and technical arrangements such that viewers’ or callers’ interests were abused.

Not In Breach

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