Text messaging could save interactive TV in the U.S.

Interactive TV, a nascent technology still looking to find its footing in a tough American media market, is getting some help from the cellular telephone. AT&T Wireless, Sprint PCS and Cingular Wireless are now allowing subscribers to interact with television programming via text messaging.

Fox’s hit, “American Idol,” is using AT&T Wireless’ TextTV--a service that encourages viewers to send and receive text messages--and finding surprising success. Pictured: 2001 American Idol Winner, Kelly Clarkson

AT&T Wireless calls the concept TextTV. It expects an increasing number of reality television shows to encourage viewers to send text messages. Fox’s hit, “American Idol,” is already using the technology to allow its audience to vote for favorite performances.

AT&T expects that viewers may eventually be asked to send photos and voice recordings via cell phone to broadcasters. “We had great response from Hollywood, both the big screen, the small screen and beyond,” an AT&T spokeswoman said of the TextTV concept.

Though interactive television services have mostly flopped in the United States, wireless phone companies say the cell phone connection is demonstrating some consumer interest. AT&T Wireless subscribers reportedly cast more than a million text-message votes since the latest season premiere of “American Idol” on Jan. 28.

In Sprint PCS’s “virtual coaching” promotion during the 2002 World Series, about 40 percent of responding viewers used a cell phone’s text message feature instead of the toll-free number provided during the broadcast.

Ironically, if the cell phone-TV connection takes off, it will be the phone companies - not the broadcasters - who profit most from the phenomenon. The cellular services generate between a nickel and a dime for each message sent by callers to the show. These are small transactions that can quickly add up to big numbers.

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