‘American Idol’ tunes in technology

Show's iTV component a hit with cell phone users

“American Idol” isn’t just revolutionizing reality TV and the music industry, but the fledgling interactive TV biz as well.

As part of its sponsorship deal with AT&T Wireless, show lets fans vote via text messaging on their cell phones, a technology known as SMS (“short message service”).

By last year’s finale, program processed around 2.5 million SMS votes, about 10% of the total. This year that number is on pace to be up significantly.

For the still fledgling iTV space, “American Idol” is by far the biggest thing it’s ever seen. And it’s been the primary spur behind a rash of deals that, after years of attempts with on-screen and PC interactivity, are making wireless the hottest iTV platform.

“About a year and a half ago, after the first ‘American Idol,’ people started asking to get SMS components,” says Scott Newnam, CEO of Goldpocket Interactive, the only major iTV production company in Hollywood currently. “Wireless is the fastest growing segment of our industry.”

Cell phones are, however, simply an accessory for TV programs – they’re not revolutionizing the industry as iTV proponents predicted their technology would do during the dot-com boom.

The roll-out set-top boxes with advanced iTV features has leveled off at about 16% of TV households for the past two years, according to data from Knowledge Networks, causing on-screen interactivity to experience little growth. Computers have proven a successful platform for marketing television, but few people are willing to play on a PC at the same time they’re watching TV.

However, the past few months have seen a rash of new deals for interactive components on TV. Skeins signing on include ABC Family’s “Knock First,” Nickelodeon’s Kid’s Choice Awards, Spike TV’s “Todd TV,” and entire line-ups on the History Channel and ABC Daytime.

The near ubiquity of cell phones amongst middle-class Americans, particularly young people, is seen as one of the key drivers. In addition, the device itself can make for a simpler, less distracting experience than other devices.

“Nearly everyone has a phone in their pocket now, so it’s much less distracting than moving to a PC or altering what you see on the TV screen,” points out Brian Levin, CEO of wireless technology company Mobliss, which powers the voting on “Idol.” “In addition, with cell phones, everyone in a household can interact at once.”

While wireless interactivity is used primarily too increase viewer loyalty by getting them more involved with the TV they’re watching, it can also be a small but significant revenue generator.

Voting on “Idol” is made available as part of AT&T Wireless’s sponsorship of the program. Other skeins, like “Todd TV” charge a small fee for viewers to vote. Still others are using SMS to allow viewers to get updates about their favorite programs, for a fee.

After a successful test last year allowing viewers to vote for the sexiest man on “All My Children,” ABC Daytime recently started a service called “Soap Confidential.” For $2.99 per month, fans are sent SMS messages from characters on the network’s soaps with secrets about upcoming stories and their thoughts on the day’s events.

“Especially for our younger viewers, anything that makes them feel more a part of the show is crucial,” says ABC Daytime prexy Brian Frons. “It helps our brand and it’s also a good way to generate some ancillary revenue.”

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