GMTV has suspended its phone-in quizzes amidst reports that viewers were duped into paying to submit entries for competitions that had already closed.
Thousands every week for the last four years paid £1.80 each to enter a weekday multiple-choice quiz, offering prizes of up to £20,000, run by the breakfast TV program. According to an investigation by the BBC's Panorama many had no chance of winning because a shortlist of 20 people with the correct entries was picked 45 minutes before lines officially closed at 9am.
The alleged ruse brought in an estimated £45,000 a day from viewers of the lightweight breakfast news magazine, or a total of £40m over the four years the quiz operated. The quiz was managed for the soft-news sofa-sitting specialists by telecoms services firm Opera Interactive Technology. Opera sales director Mark Nuttall allegedly sent an email to workers at the firm telling them "make sure they [GMTV] never find out you are picking the winners early!" in 2003. Ofcom and premium phone line watchdog ICSTIS are expected to launch an investigation into the allegations.
GMTV said it "knew nothing" of apparent irregularities by Opera. It denies any impropriety.
"GMTV knew nothing of this and is shocked to hear of these allegations," according to a statement from GMTV. "Just over a month ago GMTV instructed the city accountancy firm Deloitte to carry out a full, independent review of GMTV and Opera's current interactive systems and processes.
"The review has now been completed and we are confident, on the basis of Deloitte's findings and our own research, that our competitions are being operated fully in accordance with the codes - and that no finalists are being selected before lines have closed.
"We are investigating further but do anticipate bringing back our competitions as soon as possible," it added.
In a statement, Opera Interactive Technology said it had removed staf implicated in the alleged scandal pending an investigation. It said it has revamped its competition entry handling policy since the start of March and "all competition contestant entries throughout the entire competition period are now considered equally and fairly, whether handled directly by Opera Interactive Technology or by its telecommunications partners, using a randomised computer programme."
"Opera has in no way benefited financially from any errors in procedure in the past and will continue to keep its processes in line with any future OFCOM or ICSTIS guidelines," it added.
GMTV admitted that it had become the target of angry calls from its five million viewers as a result of the alleged fraud. Details of the allegation were due to be screened in an episode of Panorama, dubbed TV's Dirty Secrets, due to air on BBC1 at 8.30 on Monday.
Previous targets of complaints over TV phone-ins have included Richard and Judy, talent search the X Factor and even childrens' program Blue Peter. ®