In Excess

Gambling, Gaming and Extreme Behavior

TV Winners

Are television quizzes and television game shows a form of gambling?

In a number of interviews with the British press I have argued that a lot of television quiz game shows feature different forms of gambling. Even if the contestant starts off with no money, once they have won some money in the program, the money becomes theirs and they are (to all intents and purposes) gambling with their own money. I have also argued that the boundary between gambling and game shows is blurring all the time and that there is a growing trend of convergence between gambling and other media.

Over the past decade I have written a number of papers on various forms of television gambling. I have noted that various interactive television (i-TV) services are increasingly being linked to actual television programs. There has been a significant increase in the number of television shows raising revenue through the use of interactive programming. One of the most popular methods has viewers call into the television show using a premium-rate telephone service to either answer simple quiz questions. I have argued that this form of television programming is gambling in another guise.

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This innovative form of interactive viewing experience raises many questions about whether viewers are being exploited or whether such programming is just another enjoyment-enhancing dimension of the viewing experience. However, there is a fine line between customer enhancement and customer exploitation. Programmers will argue that when viewers 'put their money where their mouth is' the viewing experience is enhanced. This is very similar to the gambling industry's maxim that 'it matters more when there's money on it'. However, in the UK callers are charged at a premium rate (usually between 75p and £1.50 per call) even if they fail to get through to register their answer. Typically, on failing to connect, callers get a recorded message saying, 'Even though you haven't got through this time, we still want you to be a winner'. There are two possible routes that i-TV gambling/gaming can take. Firstly, there is television quiz show participation, which may feature gambling and/or gambling-like experiences. Secondly, there is the option of using the television as a medium on which to gamble.

To grow fast in an evolving digital landscape, television companies are formulating strategies for targeting particular segments of the industry. Platform operators appear to be deploying consumer-driven applications such as gaming (including both i-TV participation quizzes and more traditional forms of gambling via the medium of television). An environment has been created where content originators and channel operators can innovate and profitably create interactive broadband content. i-TV is seen as a way of rapidly expanding gaming and gambling because of its naturalness and ease of use. i-TV gaming can span a wide range of activities. This includes non-gambling activities such as playing video games like Tetris on the television, playing along with game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? via television remote control, and directly gambling on sports events such as horse racing and football via television remote control.

I-TV quiz shows share many of the dimensions of i-TV gambling and also raise the same concerns when talking about vulnerable and susceptible populations. The combination of gambling's impulsive nature, the general public's appetite for quiz trivia, and the ubiquity of television may prove hard to resist for many viewers. There are two main reasons why i-TV quiz shows could be viewed as a form of gambling. 

Firstly, at a very simple level it could be argued that in many i-TV quizzes, viewers are participating in a lottery. For instance, viewers are typically asked to call a premium-rate telephone line to answer a very simple question (e.g., 'Rearrange the following letters to make the name of a top rock group—STOLLING RONES'). A winner is then chosen from all those viewers with the correct answer. This, to all intents and purposes, is a lottery. However, unlike lotteries, those participating do not know what their probability of winning is. Secondly, it could also be argued that viewers are staking money (through the cost of the premium-rate telephone call) on the outcome of a future event (i.e., whether they will get the correct answer). Such a scenario could be defined as a form of gambling.

Whether i-TV quiz participation is a bona fide form of gambling or not, there are a number of reasons why the social impact of i-TV quizzes should be monitored. For instance, i-TV quiz shows appear to be being introduced with little concern for the psychosocial implications that may affect a small percentage of the population. Bringing such activities to a television set in the home carries with it a special social responsibility. For instance, there are issues about consumer protection for vulnerable populations (e.g., adolescents, problem gamblers, and the intoxicated).

It could be argued that the viewers who participate in late-night and 'through-the-night' interactive quiz programming (i.e., British television programs The Mint, Make Your Play, Quiz Call, The Great British Quiz) may be some of the most vulnerable and susceptible. These viewers are more likely to be those who do not work and therefore are on low incomes and can least afford to participate (e.g., the unemployed, the retired and elderly). Viewers may also be making decisions to play in an intoxicated state (as these programs typically start just as people get in from an evening's drinking) and/or in a state where they are not fully alert (i.e., at 3am in the morning). They may also be participating because they think their chances of winning are better in the belief that there are very few other people awake at 3am. In fact, this latter point highlights the fact that no-one participating has any idea what the odds are of winning.

As there is little to stop innovative developments in i-TV gaming from moving forward, all interested stakeholders must start to think about the potential psychosocial impacts, and all companies (who, in effect, are gaming operators) must have social responsibility codes in place to ensure that viewers are not being exploited, that games are fair, and that there are protective measures in place for vulnerable individuals. i-TV gaming and gambling (including both i-TV quiz participation and more traditional i-TV gambling) are likely to bring about new and more immediate interactive opportunities. Viewers will eventually be able to make spontaneous bets during sporting events, everything from whether someone will score from a penalty in the soccer World Cup final through to whether someone will sink a particular putt in the US Open Golf Championship. When interactive gaming technology is brought into households, the operators have a duty to act responsibly. This applies equally to i-TV quiz participation. Systems that allow gaming access should have a particular requirement to provide controls that reduce the risk of gaming-related social problems.

In future, television viewers are more likely to participate in a much wider array of events than interactive quizzes and sporting events. This is likely to be via credit payment directly through their digital interactive service. This may include popular UK television events like betting on who will win the Eurovision Song Contest, who will be evicted from the Big Brother house, or who will pick up an Oscar. Such non-sport gambling may also bring in new clientele such as female television viewers. The take-up of i-TV quiz participation and/or i-TV gambling may also be very popular with those people who would not dream of going to a casino or betting shop. The use of i-TV quiz participation and/or i-TV gambling may help change people's attitude about gambling by destigmatizing and feminizing it. These new types of gambling and gaming experiences could lead to a more social experience shared by clientele across the demographic spectrum.

The issue of i-TV quiz participation can also be framed more widely in a contemporary society that is increasingly governed by virtual processes. The kind of manipulation that is involved in getting people to respond to an event, even if they have to pay to respond, is achieved by offering a prize that the individual is very unlikely to win. In getting people to respond through this kind of process, the entrepreneurial operators are assured that they will have increased financial revenue through the money they raise by facilitating people to voluntarily behave in these ways. This opens up a discourse examining the ways that people are intentionally manipulated to behave in ways that cost while promising an improbable outcome. This may help us construct useful models which could help us understand and provide insight into gambling behaviors. It also invites discussion of what policies should inform the ways that media such as television and the internet engage and prime people who have become 'enchanted' by a theatrical experience to behave in ways that, if not inevitable, are statistically predictable. There may even be factors of vulnerability that correlate with the likelihood that people will act that way.

Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University (UK).

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