Media: Perspective: Phone-in row will cost broadcasters more than revenue

It all began with some rawl plugs and a balaclava. The two items sparked a premium phone-line crisis when an ITV Play quiz listed them as things you might find in a woman's handbag. The unlikely existence of any such bag has thrown the spotlight on this hugely lucrative, yet rather opaque, revenue stream for broadcasters.

Since the incident, the number of complaints about the fairness of TV phones quizzes has snowballed. Last week, even Blue Peter was caught with its pants down, after the show was discovered to have knowingly fixed the result of a children's phone-in competition.

While a range of investigations has been launched by the premium-rate regulator, Icstis, Ofcom has also announced it will investigate more than 20 incidents involving ITV, five, Channel 4 and the BBC to examine whether they have breached the broadcasting code.

Interestingly, from a TV trading and an advertiser perspective, this scandal appears to have had very little effect. If anything, the advertisers are profiting, as ITV replaced its gambling channel with a second view of ITV2, giving advertisers increased impacts.

But the broadcasters risk losing out. ITV has pulled the plug on ITV Play, despite the cash cow channel generating an income of £54 million in 2006 and predictions it would make £20 million profit this year. There's no question that these services are an important revenue stream. In addition, the effect on programming could be significant: a number of popular programmes such as The X Factor and Big Brother are powered by phone voting. With this in mind, broadcasters will be hoping for a speedy resolution.

However, now that Ofcom has waded in with its own investigation, a quick outcome seems unlikely. It is the first real outing for the new-ish chief executive, Ed Richards, and speculation is that he will use it to stamp his mark on Ofcom. The communications regulator has been criticised for being a soft touch in the past, and Richards is said to be looking to clean up the mess and restore TV's reputation. Most expect him to impose hefty fines and tighter regulation.

But tighter control might be a blessing in disguise. Not only do many of the phone-in competitions lend a tacky air to broadcasters' output, the risk of making viewers feel conned and cheated is a dangerous one. Should scepticism around the phone-ins continue to grow, there's a distinct possibility that this could have an impact on advertisers who may feel reluctant to associate their brands with these programmes. Carphone Warehouse's decision to end its sponsorship of Big Brother shows how costly such scepticism can become.

It seems TV has a tough job ahead if it's going to restore its image this year. It could start by getting rid of the balaclavas.

- Ian Darby is away.