Why is TV bingo not bingo?
By Kate Bulkley
The rules covering betting and gaming in the UK are frighteningly outdated. They were written in the 1960s, long before the launch of the commercial internet or Sky Digital.
While online and interactive TV (iTV) gambling are both growth businesses, technically speaking they fall outside most current regulation, which was originally written to regulate gambling at race courses, casinos and betting shops.
Moreover, the ITC determined last year that its remit is TV, not iTV, which is “internet-like”. This “rules gap” on iTV betting is offering commercial TV operators like Avago and Sky Bet big opportunities – albeit laced with some risk regrading the kind of rules that will eventually emerge.
But it’s not much of a risk. The government has signalled that new rules will favour proper licensing of gambling as a mainstream leisure activity available on all technical platforms, from TVs to mobile phones. But there are still some big questions to answer, such as when will the National Lottery go interactive and will the BBC be allowed to provide “red button” betting for it?
Bookies offer ‘casino-style’ games from virtual shops
The iTV operators call the current lack of rules a “grey area” and are busy launching services to test the market and establish their businesses. The Gaming Board, which currently regulates “bricks-and-mortar” gaming establishments from bingo halls to casinos, admits it does not have jurisdiction over iTV gambling, but is monitoring the business anyway.
And despite the rules gap, most operators are consulting with the Gaming Board and Gamcare, which provides a bizarre mix of consultancy services to gambling businesses and counselling for problem gamblers, to make sure they stay within the law.
That said, the iTV gambling operators have run circles around the distinction in the present law between gaming and betting. Gaming is considered anything tied to a specific location, such as a bingo hall or a casino, where games like roulette or dice-based pursuits are played.
There is an element of skill involved in gaming; the Gaming Board keeps a close eye on how these establishments are run to ensure they are free of criminal activity and that punters have a fair chance of winning.
By contrast, betting has traditionally involved placing a bet on contests that take place elsewhere, such as football matches and horse races. The odds are fixed and bookmakers need only a simple licence proving they are reputable and financially sound to do business.
So whereas bingo halls are regulated by the Gaming Board, a fixed-odds, best numbers game such as that provided by Avago requires only a bookmaker’s licence to operate. Avago may look like bingo on TV but, according to the current rules, it is not and therefore is not strictly regulated by the Gaming Board. Avago and others are now launching more “casino-style” games but with fixed odds on the bets in order to evade the regulator.
Waiting for the law to turn up
Meanwhile, the government is in the throes of writing new gambling legislation covering both bricks-and-mortar establishments and TV, internet and mobile phone betting. The new law could be in force early next year following a White Paper this month.
Unlike some countries – including the US – where internet and iTV gambling are banned, the British government clearly sees gambling as a mainstream leisure activity that can be subjected to licensing and taxation.
The three principle criteria of the new rules, according to the government, will be: the proper licensing of reputable operators; ensuring that the products offered are fair and provide the punter with a decent chance of winning; and that minors and problem gamblers are protected.
The last will surely include screening customers to ensure they are over 18 as well as imposing spending limits on bets. But some answers are still needed and much discussion is taking place over how these goals can be achieved, especially on iTV services.