German Viewers Pay Millions for ‘Interactive’ TV

There is money all over the floor. A TV set in the back of the stage is showing soft porn. More than half of the screen is occupied by flashy graphics promising up to 50.000 Euro, blinking countdowns, phone numbers and a word puzzle that a four-year-old could solve in a minute. And then there is the host of the show. Screaming at the camera, swearing, running around on stage like crazy. Mocking someone who called earlier, literally giving away the answer of the puzzle. Still, no one seems to call.

Tune into German cable TV these days, and you’re likely to find multiple stations with shows like these at any time of the day. Call-in game shows have become big business for the German cable TV industry. Viewers are charged 49 Euro-Cents (about $0.65 U.S.) per call. Some of the more successful networks generate hundreds of millions of calls each year. Proponents claim this is the future of interactive television. Critics call it the biggest fraud in TV’s history.

Call-In television was pioneered in Germany by a TV network called 9Live that was founded in 2001 by the former German MTV boss Christiane zu Salm. Zu Salm used to tell reporters that “direct contact to the audience is the most important growth opportunity.” Media giant ProSiebenSat.1 Media AG agreed and decided to buy 9Live in 2005.

The format has spread like wildfire all over Europe ever since. ProSiebenSat.1, who operates some of the most watched TV networks in Europe, estimates that it will be able to generate up to 14 percent of its revenue through call-in shows by 2008. 9Live alone processes 240 million phone calls per year. The station generated revenue of almost 28 million Euros ($37 million U.S.) in the first quarter of 2007.

Critics believe that a huge part of this money is made with fraudulent methods. They point out that most callers never have a chance to actually solve the puzzles. Instead they are greeted by automated messages that tell them they didn’t win this time and encourage them to call again. The TV networks in question don’t deny that. It’s like the lottery, they say. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. Lucky callers are supposedly selected at random.

Watch any of these stations for a while, and you begin to doubt the randomness of their games. Prices are regularly slashed just before a caller gets through. Sometimes it takes hours before anyone gets on air at all. Then there are all these folks with obviously wrong answers just when the stakes are high. Or the people who hang up at the last second. But there are hardly ever any big-time winners.

All this has led to an active scene of critics who are coordinating their detective work online. They have recorded quiz show hosts talking with their crews about not letting anyone on the show during peak calling hours, unearthed unsolvable puzzles and documented hundreds of scenes with high pressure sales tactics that make your average car salesman look like an altar boy.

So far German authorities have been slow to react. British regulators have been much more effective, imposing strict rules to make call-in shows more transparent. The industry is already preparing for other, less regulated avenues though. A promotional video of 9Live recently touted the Internet, mobile phones and digital television as new revenue generators. After all, that’s just what the net needs: More gambling, less interactivity.