UK premium-rate regulator ICSTIS has hit Opera Telecom with a £250,000 fine and independent review of its operating practices for picking the winners of the GMTV phone-in competition early.
Competition lines opened at 06.00 and closed at 09.00, with the winning name being drawn live on air from a hat containing 20 names. The problem was that Opera picked the lucky 20 about 08.00, an hour before the phone lines closed.
But even punters who called in before 08.00 were by no means certain to be entered into the competition. The servers at Opera could only handle 1,200 simultaneous calls, but up to 10,000 eager punters wasn't unusual, so the overload was passed to BT's RIDE call-handling system. No problem there, except those callers were never entered into the selection process, even though they were charged for entering.
Even worse, when the Opera servers were down for a week all voice calls were transferred to RIDE, meaning only those who entered by SMS stood any chance of winning at all.
ICSTIS said: "Viewers were not informed at any time during this period that those entering by telephone could not win."
Taking February 2006 as an example, 61 per cent of entrants never stood a chance of winning. Just over 1.5 million people entered, bringing in £1,246,627.25, of which £762,935.87 was came from entries that couldn't win.
Apparently, all this was the fault of one errant employee, Mark Nuttall, who "owned the client [GMTV] and was very possessive".
Among the evidence presented to ICSTIS was an email sent by Nuttall in response to a note suggesting GMTV might have seen proof of what was going on. it comprises the classic line: "Make sure they never find out that you are picking the winners early!!!!!", and was copied to at least four people within the company, including the company director.
The recipients of the mail were apparently too busy to read it, though Opera also tried to argue that the message had an innocent meaning; an argument ICSTIS rejected.
Opera Telecom has, since been named and shamed, worked with ICSTIS to investigate what went wrong, and arranged refunds to competition entrants and GMTV. It has also created a prize draw into which all the competition entrants who couldn't have won have been entered.
But that served little in terms of mitigation to ICSTIS, which imposed its maximum-possible fine while noting in its judgement on the case: "But for this cap, it would be possible to justify a fine well in excess of the limit of £250,000."
Opera Telecom now has to appoint an independent consultancy and work with ICSTIS to demonstrate how much it's improved things if it doesn't want to end up with a 12-month ban on operating premium-rate services. ®