'Deal or No Deal' Is a Big Deal for NBC's Coffers

Show's Text-Messaging Contest Becomes Blueprint for Future Deals

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The deal: NBC is offering viewers of "Deal or No Deal" the chance to play at home via text messages on their cellphones.

The result: Extra coin that helps the show's producers cover production costs and even generates a profit. The success of the promotion will be extended to other NBC shows.

Even though they have the option to play the Lucky Case Game for free online, viewers are paying the 99 cents to take part using their cellphones.

"Deal or No Deal" has become a big deal not only in terms of NBC's ratings, but also in terms of generating revenue from a text-messaging contest conducted during the game show.

The program features a contestant who picks one of 26 suitcases presented on stage by individual models. Inside each closed suitcase is a number representing the dollar value of potential prize money ranging from one cent to $1 million. Initially, the contestant selects one suitcase and then opens the others as part of the game. During the show, a "banker" -- a producer whose identity is shown only in shadowy profile -- offers to buy the contestant's suitcase depending on how much in potential winnings remain in the unopened suitcases on stage. In effect, the contestant is betting there is more money in the first suitcase selected than the banker is offering in his deal. Each time the contestant faces whether to stick with the suitcase or accept the banker's offer, a group of pre-selected friends and family members -- and the audience -- shouts encouragement to make or to decline the deal.

Although one reviewer called "Deal or No Deal" the dumbest prime-time show ever, the audience this month has ranged from 14.2 million to 17.7 million viewers.

Potentially groundbreaking game

But one of the potentially groundbreaking aspects of the show is a separate viewer-participation game integrated into the program called the Lucky Case Game. In it, viewers are given an opportunity to vote -- online for free or by premium cellphone text-messaging for 99 cents -- on which of six suitcases contain $10,000. The winner is selected from a lottery among those who picked the correct suitcase and the winner's name is broadcast live at the end of the program.

The game is conducted three times, once in each time zone, each night the show airs. The in-show game is promoted four times during the program, once for the free online voting, and three times for the mobile voting, though on-screen text still mentions the free online voting possibility.

Executives at NBC and the show's production company, Endemol USA, declined to say how many mobile votes were generated, or to detail how the 99-cent premium fee was broken down between the phone carrier, the network, production company and a mobile channel enabler.

But Jon Vlassopulos, VP-new media, business development and strategic planning for Endemol USA, said around the world 5% to 10% of viewers participate in the interactive aspects of the program. In this case, about 75% voted for free online. That means each episode collects, on average, roughly $400,000 in fees from text messages from viewers.

American Idol's 41.5 million text messages

Of course, that number is far less than what Cingular Wireless gets from its exclusive association with Fox's "American Idol." For the fourth season of the hit music contest, Fox said it generated more than 41.5 million text messages throughout the show's 12-week voting period. Viewership for the current fifth season is up, meaning Fox could collect even more from those thumb punchers.

Industry sources said revenue from text promotions generally is split, 35% to 65%, between the wireless carrier and the content carrier, respectively, and the remainder goes to the aggregator or company enabling the program to work on numerous cellphones and wireless services.

Mr. Vlassopulos said income from the game is enough to cover associated costs such as shooting extra footage, voice over, and labor involved in selecting the winner live and announcing it over the air. He hinted that it may even turn up a bit of a profit.

Stephen Andrade, VP, NBC Interactive, said the network is so happy with the results that next week its "Celebrity Cooking Showdown" program will include a similar 99-cent text-messaging contest. This time the prize, a GE Dream Kitchen, is sponsored by General Electric Co., which is also NBC's parent. This summer's upcoming NBC reality series "Treasure Hunters" also will have a mobile phone component.

Sponsorship opportunities

In addition, he said NBC's sales department is actively speaking with potential sponsors for other aspects of the "Deal or No Deal" program, including sponsorship of the models who open the suitcases and sales of mobile wallpapers, ring tones and even a mobile game.

"Everything to do with digital is a top priority," Mr. Andrade said.

Mr. Vlassopulos said mobile contestants' phone numbers were not collected for future marketing efforts, but the program cooperated with carriers who were able to use cellphone ID numbers to locate the winner.

One other important aspect of the program, according to executives working on the program, was that participation from viewers using text messaging did not drop off when the cost per vote increased from 49 cents when the program first aired in December, to the current 99-cent rate.

A spokeswoman for Endemol said the company "actually saw huge growth, which would suggest that there is little consumer price sensitivity between 49 and 99 cents."

"For interesting and compelling content, consumers will pay for that right to participate," said Jim Manis, senior VP, m-Qube, a mobile marketing firm that was recently purchased by VeriSign for $250 million.
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