Letter from Ofcom on Psychic TV

01.11.10

Dear Mr Gallagher,

Thank you for your email to my colleague, dated 22 October 2010. As a member of the standards team your email has been passed to me for reply. As you may be aware, from 1 September this year new enforcement arrangements that affect participation TV (“PTV”) came into force. PTV is defined as long-form advertising (teleshopping) content that:
  • has as its primary purpose the promotion of premium rate telephony services (PRS); or
  • has as its primary purpose the promotion of paid interaction by viewers with content, through payment mechanisms other than PRS.
Prior to 1 September 2010, Ofcom regulated psychic practices as programme (editorial) material under the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. From 1 September 2010, long-form psychic television services which are predicated on PRS and fall into the above category now fall into the category of long-form advertising. This means that such services will continue to be regulated by Ofcom but will now be regulated as advertising content under the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (“the BCAP Code”). Broadcasters of these services must comply with all BCAP Code rules.

You might be interested to note that in 2009 Ofcom conducted research into the views of users of Psychic TV services. This research found that participants held mixed views about such services. While almost none of the participants of the research believed that this kind of product was genuine, most were of the view that it was a relatively harmless form of entertainment. For others, however, it was felt to be harmful, on the grounds that it would largely be used by those in need of professional counseling, which undermined its claimed status as an “entertainment” product. To a lesser extent, the protection of children and young people was also an issue, though most felt that a product of this nature would be of little interest to this audience. In addition, a key finding from the research was that irrespective of this divide in feeling, most people were of the opinion that the product has a right to exist, arguing in favour of freedom of choice and expressing concerns about "nanny state"-type restrictions.

Under the Communications Act 2003, the responsibility for Ofcom is to balance these broadcaster and viewer freedoms against the very important need to give appropriate protection to children and the vulnerable. The BCAP Code contains clear and strict rules that aim to protect viewers from potentially harmful advertisements. However, it is important to note that advertisements for psychic and occult practices have been permitted on radio for the last ten years, provided they do not make efficacy claims, are compliant with the rules on harm and misleading advertising, and are centrally cleared by the Radio Advertising Clearance Centre (RACC).

Where Ofcom finds evidence that psychic television has broadcast harmful advice we take firm and swift enforcement action. For example, please see Ofcom‟s recently published finding relating to the broadcast of harmful advice on a programme of this nature, in broadcast bulletin 162.

In addition to our regulatory duties in this area, PhonepayPlus also regulate the content of premium rate telephone services4. Psychic television and its current regulation under the BCAP Code is an area that will continue to be closely monitored by Ofcom. The BCAP Code The BACP Code has specific rules relating to the promotion of psychic practices aimed at ensuring that viewers are not misled and that there are sufficient safeguards in place to protect the vulnerable. In particular, Section 15 of the BCAP Code „faith, religion and equivalent systems of belief‟ includes rules that specifically relate to the broadcast of psychic practices. In particular, Rule 15.4 of the BCAP Code states:
Television advertisements must not promote psychic practices or practices related to the occult, except those permitted by rule 15.55. Radio advertisements may promote psychic and occult practices but must not make efficacy claims.Psychic and occult-related practices include ouija, satanism, casting of spells, palmistry, attempts to contact the dead, divination, clairvoyance, clairaudience, the invocation of spirits or demons and exorcism.
This rule prohibits the promotion of psychic practices or practices related to the occult in television advertisements, which includes any suggestion of contacting the dead, whether broadcast live or pre-recorded.

Rule 15.5.2 states:
Advertisements for personalised and live services that rely on belief in astrology, horoscopes, tarot and derivative practices are acceptable only on channels that are licensed for the purpose of the promotion of such services and are appropriately labelled: both the advertisement and the product or service itself must state that the product or service is for entertainment purposes only.
Rule 15.5.2 clearly requires both the advertisements and the product or service to state that the product or service is for entertainment purposes only. As set out above, Ofcom has found that viewers tend to consider psychic services to be a relatively harmless form of entertainment and therefore these services should be appropriately labelled as such. Ofcom will assess compliance with this rule on a case by case basis.

In addition to this, Rule 15.5.3 states
Advertising permitted under rule 15.5 may not:
  • Make claims for efficacy or accuracy;
  • Predict negative experiences or specific events;
  • Offer life-changing advice directed at individuals – including advice related to health (including pregnancy) or financial situation;
  • Appeal particularly to children;
  • Encourage excessive use.
This rule clearly prohibits claims for accuracy in advertising of psychic practices. This rule also prohibits advertisements offering life-changing advice. Under the BCAP Code life-changing advice is interpreted as direct advice for individuals upon which they could reasonably act or rely. Such advice may include health, finance, employment, and relationship advice.

The BCAP Code also contains rules to prevent misleading and harmful advertising (sections 3 and 4). When considering such complaints Ofcom will also take into account:
  • the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008; and
  • the context of the advertisement when considering issues of potentially harmful advice or content.
Ofcom considers cases of potentially harmful or misleading advertisements on a case by case basis.

I hope this information has been helpful.

Yours sincerely,

Case Leader, Content & Standards

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