Reality Shows Pass on Exclusive Deals With Wireless Carriers

Trend Is Toward Opening Phone Lines to Boost Audience Participation

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LOS ANGELES -- Could reality TV soon be hanging up on wireless partnerships?
Fox's 'So You Think You Can Dance' generated 10 million votes via its branded toll-free number last week. The show doesn't collect revenue from those calls, but it does get increased viewer participation.

Where shows such as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" and "American Idol" once made splashy exclusive sponsorship deals with partners like AT&T and Cingular to offset rising production costs, producers of reality fare are increasingly turning to text messaging to give viewers the chance to vote or enter contests.

"Deal or No Deal," "Big Brother," "America's Got Talent," "The Biggest Loser," "Hell's Kitchen" and "Last Comic Standing" have turned to text messaging across all carriers to encourage viewer participation. And shows such as "So You Think You Can Dance" have adopted toll-free numbers to tally votes on which contestants should stay or go.

Opening votes to more viewers

Opening the votes to enable more viewers to participate is being viewed as a way for shows, their producers and networks to generate not only more interest, but also more revenue.

The trend could prove problematic for players in the highly competitive wireless market.

Should more shows follow suit and opt out of trying to land an exclusive phone partner, carriers will end up losing out on prominent on-air exposure, as well as money they can make from related content, such as the sale of ringtones, sweepstakes, chats with losers and other products.

"It's definitely advantageous for the carrier to participate," said Julie Ask, senior analyst, Jupiter Research. "Everybody wins."

Not everyone is making the move to lose their partners, however. Mark Burnett's "Rock Star: Supernova" has an exclusive deal with Verizon Wireless for texting; it allows for voting online.

Then there's "American Idol." In addition to calling a toll-free number, text messaging via Cingular Wireless' service has been the sole way for viewers to vote for their favorite singers on the Fox juggernaut.

Cingular sets texting records

Cingular set a record during the recently completed fifth season, recording more than 64 million text messages over the show's 12-week run, compared with last season's 41.5 million messages sent (and the 7.5 million text messages sent in 2003), giving Cingular considerable exposure and paying for the tens of millions of dollars it spent to be an exclusive sponsor on the show.

Overall, however, only 10% of the votes counted by "American Idol" came through text messaging, Ms. Ask said. (Fox declined to discuss the actual number of votes counted but said the 10% figure was not correct.)

For text messaging, the money is split between the carrier, various mobile companies that enable the promotion to run on different handsets from various carriers; and the network and the production company. Broadcasters typically get 40% of the revenue. Each deal is arranged individually.

"American Idol" charged 10 cents per text message, and is said to have generated $6 million in texting fees.

Other productions want to collect more, and have increased the per-text cost to 99 cents. Of course, how much they will earn depends on just how many people participate.

"Big Brother" charged viewers 49 cents last summer per text. The show attracted 500,000 votes over two days last season, CBS said. In an effort to drum up more dollars, the show upped the cost of its text messages to 99 cents this summer.

Text revenue becomes prize money

But some productions are making enough money from texting to offset costs. "Deal or No Deal" has used text messages to pay for the $1 million in prize money it gives away. In the spring, it received 57 million votes, many of them via text messaging. Others votes were generated online.

Two weeks ago, Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" generated 8 million votes via its branded toll-free number. Last week, the number grew to 10 million. Without a sponsor or text-message fees, it doesn't collect any revenue from the votes, but the increased participation from viewers does open the doors for the show's producers, 19 Entertainment ("American Idol") and Dick Clark Productions, to court a phone carrier or launch a text-message offering next season.

Some networks want it both ways.

For CBS's "Big Brother," Cingular Wireless is a sponsor but, at the same time, all the wireless carriers are participating in the text-messaging portion of the show.

"It's the ideal scenario," said Cyriac Roeding, VP-wireless, CBS. Among the "Big Brother" offerings are a sweepstakes for $10,000 and voting on house action, as well as the ability to download diaries.

Mr. Roeding said CBS prefers to have all carriers participate in the text-messaging portion of the contest, but if one carrier wanted to have an exclusive they would consider it. "We are not going to say no to a big sponsorship if it makes sense to us," he said.

Not all telecom carriers are overly enthusiastic about sponsorships of reality programs and backing text promotions.

Sprint's scripted preference

Laurie Thompson, director-entertainment marketing, sponsorships and promotions, Sprint, said the carrier is willing to participate in multicarrier voting propositions, but it prefers to focus on integrating Sprint into scripted TV programming as opposed to texting or other messaging activities.

"We are focused on incorporating [Sprint products] into the script rather than text-to-enter" promotions, she said.

Mr. Roeding said the networks are not raking in money from promotions around reality programs because a lot of the income goes to the technical setup costs and paying for prize money.

"It's more about loyalty and involvement [of viewers] than it is about making big dollars," he said.
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