The BBC recently published a review into the problems on Blue Peter and Saturday Kitchen, with many of its recommendations now being considered by the BBC Trust. But are these measures enough?
Joanne Oatts spoke to Mike Loginov, managing director of DNV IT global services, a risk assurance consultancy that has been working with the British media for some time in assessing the risks in running competitions and voting services. Following the recent furore around text and phone votes, and previous attempts at vote-rigging on UK shows, the company has set up a new division specifically to focus on how broadcasters can make sure their competitions are managed correctly and fairly.
So Mike, tell me a bit about what your company does.
As an organisation we've actually set up an accreditation programme with the Media Society Foundation in Geneva. We're the only certified company in the world - as I understand it - that has this particular capability: we certify the quality of the type of work that is carried out within the broadcasting industry to a certain standard. That manifests itself in a couple of areas. For example, we were asked to look after the voting at the Singapore elections for the 2012 Olympics, to ensure it was correct and appropriate; and we do similar things for the World Lottery Association. So we're very competent in managing these processes and the technologies that surround them.
So in terms of Big Brother, how will Channel 4 ensure their voting systems are robust and not at risk from vote rigging?
The two key words that jump out me there are "robust" and "not at risk." In risk management we talk about vulnerability rather than 'robustness', and we talk about the size of the risk. In terms of the size of the threat, there have been various figures bandied about with regards to the amount of gambling that is taking place on Big Brother. I have seen figures of £15 million to £50 million, so clearly it's an attractive area for someone with an interest in the outcome of the show to influence the results. So there is a threat there. The size of the threat is dependent on your view of the world, I guess. When we're looking at the size of the risk, we talk about 'threat level times vulnerability'. Due to the type of work we do, we're very aware of the vulnerability of [voting] systems. There isn't a system in the world that is 100% secure. The threat is there, the vulnerability is there. So those two together give us a risk that needs to be considered. How should broadcasters view that? You would have thought they need to take that very seriously.
What other risks should broadcasters take into account when running competitions?
Clearly there are the legal and compliance issues, and loss of revenue. The revenue generated from these premium rate services is in the region of £1.6 billion a year, so it's a big business. We've seen figures saying there's been a 20% drop in the hard revenues received by the companies as a result of the recent scandals. But there have also been shows, events and competitions that have been closed down as a result of the threat. Potential brand damage is also an issue - Blue Peter for example: an age-old institution which has taken an age to build the level of integrity it has with the public. It takes donkey's years to build that kind of reputation, but it's tainted heavily with a thirty minute cock-up. It could have a wide ranging impact.
What impact have failures in competition and voting systems had on the consumer?
As a consumer, I become more aware that the integrity of the competition may not be quite as I thought it was. For example, competition lines being closed early, with a winner already decided; yet the lines are still open, taking calls, but I am still paying for that [call]. So potentially it could be classed as fraudulent, as it is taking money under circumstances that are not right and proper. On a more personal level, it could result in a lack of interest, as the point of those type of shows is that as a consumer, I feel that I have some kind of influence over the winner, and the psychology is that I can vote for the person I like best and influence the outcome. If there is a situation where voting is being manipulated by external resources - diverting calls to a different number via a call centre in India perhaps - then the end result is that consumers lose interest in that particular show. Big brands - Big Brother, American Idol, X Factor - all of these shows are open to threat in this particular area.
Do you think broadcasters have relied too heavily on technology in the past, and not had enough human checking?
I think it's a combination of both. The processes they've used for checking are clearly open to review because we've had these issues, and the processes have a large human element to them. The technology - and I can't say too much about our techniques - identifies where the calls are coming from. If you are getting a lot of calls from one particular number then something is clearly going on. One potential solution is for an independent organisation to monitor this process throughout the voting. Often they [the broadcasters] see the results going wrong at the end of the competition, rather than during the process. Whereas we say you need to have somebody monitoring this throughout the time the lines are open. Therefore, you can stop calls coming in, or stop calls coming from a particular number, and take more control over the process. Technology can help, but it has to be the right technology. But you're absolutely right - you have to have the right human processes in place as well.
Is outsourcing to third party suppliers from broadcasters a problem when it comes to competitions and voting? Have the broadcasters lacked control in the past?
I think that is probably the case, based on the fact that there have been cases where the companies have sacked their suppliers. And an independent process, which looks at ensuring the service level agreement between the supplier and the broadcaster is kept to the highest level of integrity, seems to be missing to me, and this is why organisations are ending up in this mess. Who's overseeing this relationship, and focusing on ensuring the consumer is protected? Obviously from the TV company's perspective it's interested in its brand and its image - and they're getting big money from this as well.
What do you think of Big Brother's move to axe text voting from this series?
We can help and assist with reinstalling these methods for voting. It requires technology to sit between the process, to pick up on errors where it's clear that things are going wrong. Just to write it off completely is probably a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, though I can understand why they would do that. In the event of not knowing that there are solutions out there to minimise the risk, then sure, you want to cut the risk out. \But if you value the revenue which is coming in from that area, then there are solutions that are worth looking at.
Do you watch Big Brother yourself and have you ever voted?
Yeah - I'm a big fan of Coronation Street and Eastenders, and to me Big Brother is an extension of the soaps, with a twinge of real life in there. So yeah, I'm a big fan. And yes, I have voted in the past, so I am just as much a part of the infrastructure as a lot of other people!