The awful allure of phone-in TV

The first time I ever came across Quizmania I thought my television was playing up. The screen said ITV1, but the channel numbers had obviously got muddled, because this had the jangling, amateurish feel of a pilot for a new, low-budget cable station. Had any- one asked me at the time, which was a week or two before Christmas, I would have said that the programme wouldn't last the year.

Quizmania is a phone-in quiz show. A word is displayed, and viewers are invited to suggest another that might go next to it. If the word is "ice", for example, some possibilities could be "maiden" or "lolly" or "pick". To win a cash prize you must guess one of five answers hidden behind a screen. But that is literally anybody's guess, for there is no deducible rationale behind the selection of the five, other than perhaps a wilful preference for the obscure. Where Blankety Blank at least rewarded people's logical common sense, Quizmania is actually designed to be randomly unfair.

A young presenter on the brink of hysteria bullies viewers to phone in. The callers, who sound mostly drunk, or medicated, or lonely or educationally subnormal, come on the line and generally guess wrong. A mystifying number of them offer the very same answer that has been tried and rejected ten times already. Sometimes more than an hour can go by before a wild stab in the dark at last wins a prize -seldom more than a few thousand pounds. When all the words have been guessed, a new one appears on the screen, and the whole thing starts again.

If you think this sounds like bad television, you are right. Quizmania is not really a televi-sion programme at all - not even by the standards of old-style TV quiz shows, which at least used to mandate some component of justice, personality, suspense or meaningful prize money. Quizmania doesn't go to the trouble of even making itself watchable - for the good reason that it can afford not to bother. It doesn't need to attract very many viewers, because it has no need to generate advertising revenue. It is a whole new concept of commercial tele vision programming - one which does not rely on commercials.

There are now several cable stations devoted exclusively to interactive quiz television, some owned by ITV and Channel 4, and they are making a fortune. In the beginning, Quizmania made so much money that it didn't have any commercial breaks at all, calculating that its profits would actually drop while the adverts were on. Every call costs roughly 70 pence, regardless of whether it gets through. If you can pull in half a million of those every night, you are not in the business of making television at all: you are simply making money.

If these programmes were shown only on cable television, that would be depressing but not surprising. But Quizmania went out on ITV1 every single night from last December to March, for three hours uninterrupted, and for three nights a week all summer. ITV1 now screens a more elaborate version of the same format called The Mint for several hours from midnight, every single night. The Mint even makes a passing pretence to be a proper programme, with "celebrity" guests and an approximation of an actual studio set, but the overheads are never allowed to get out of hand. The profits are rumoured to be roughly £2m a week.

Commercial television used to be one of the models people liked to cite to prove that capi talism worked. Creative, consumer and commercial interests were supposed to coincide in one seamless, mutually beneficial entertainment arrangement. The better the programme, the more people would watch, thereby attract-ing more advertisers, and making more money, which could then be spent on making more quality programmes.

But this new commercial TV doesn't have to be creative or popular, because the only viewers who matter to it are the ones who pick up the phone. And even they don't feel entertained so much as exploited. I'm afraid I know this from experience. If you watch for more than 15 minutes, an inexplicable urge to dial starts creeping over you. The transmission hours coincide with pub closing time, obviously, which goes some way to explain the phenomenon. Many friends attribute their compulsion to keep going and to press redial, knowing they'll never get through, to simple drunkenness.

Yet there is something darkly ingenious about the impression of amateurishness that these programmes have perfected. Like the goofy-looking pool shark, they are engaged in a highly elaborate fraud.

This sort of TV strikes me less as an aberrant form of capitalism than as its logical conclusion. A Labour government was at least supposed to correct capitalism's worst excesses, but on some days The Mint clocks up nearly as many hours of ITV's airtime as the news. How did this happen? In fact, the real mystery isn't why people phone in, but what these programmes are doing on terrestrial television.