Phone-In Contest Show Violates Code for Lack of Transparency, Says Canadian Broadcast Standards Council

Ottawa, April 28, 2010 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning Play TV broadcast on Global Ontario (CIII-TV).  Play TV was a contest program in which viewers telephoned to solve various puzzles and problems in order to win cash prizes.  The CBSC received numerous complaints, primarily that the mathematical problems featured on the program had illogical solutions for which no explanation or methodology was provided.  The CBSC found that the program violated Clause 12 of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ (CAB) Code of Ethics, which requires that contests are conducted fairly and legitimately.

Play TV aired on Global Ontario from July 2009 to March 2010 in the very late hours of Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights.  A puzzle appeared on screen and a host took calls from viewers.  Calls were chosen at random to state their solution on air.  Each call cost the participant approximately $2 regardless of success in getting on air or in solving the question.  The CBSC received a total of 42 complaints about the program, but only three individuals asked the CBSC to make a determination.  Each of those three people identified a different mathematical puzzle each on a different broadcast date.

One puzzle was an equation involving addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, but the answer sought did not seem to match any possible result.  The second was a mathematical word problem involving a story about girls and cats on a bus and the caller had to calculate how many legs were on the bus.  The answer provided at the end of contest was 1359 and the complainant questioned how the answer could be an odd, rather than an even, number since humans and cats usually have legs in multiples of two.  The third puzzle complained of involved moving matchsticks around to form the highest number possible.

In their responses to the complainants, Global Ontario stated that there was only one possible answer for each question and all Play TV puzzles are verified by an independent auditor and the program producers.  The station wrote that there was no trickery involved, but that the methodology could not be revealed to the audience because that would preclude the program from ever playing that type of game again.  The CBSC Ontario Regional Panel disagreed; it found the first two broadcasts in violation of Clause 12, but had no problem with the matchstick puzzle because the method for solving that question was demonstrated on air.  The Panel made the following comments about the program:

The point is only that the answer[s were] far from evident.  […]  And the second complainant’s scepticism about the solution of 1359 legs on the bus was, in the Panel’s view, well-founded.  How, he wondered, could the number of humans’ and cats’ legs be anything other than an even number?  […]  [T]he Panel encountered a far more transparent result in the case of the two matchstick contests […].  The viewers were treated to the physical displacing of matchsticks.  They could understand.  The exercise was transparent.  […]  It proved that an answer could be provided to the audience, with the effect of legitimizing the transparency of the contest.

[…] The bottom line is that, even if disclosure of methodology did have the effect of facilitating contest-solving, the Panel is of the view that the producer (and, inferentially, the broadcaster) needed to take that step to legitimize the contests as a function of Clause 12.  […]  While it is true that the producers would likely be prevented from playing the very same game twice, on the assumption that there are constant viewers of the program, the Panel merely views the need to find slightly modified games as one of the costs of broadcasting such programming.

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, equitable portrayal, television violence and journalistic independence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide.  In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes and the pay television Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic ethics created by the RTNDA – Association of Electronic Journalists in 1970.  More than 735 radio stations, satellite radio services, television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab