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ABC Soap Selling Votes

Aug 11, 2003  •  Post A Comment

ABC is placing a double afternoon bet that viewers will pay to vote for “the sexiest man in America” and that interactive television through the cellphone will deliver dividends. The broadcaster injected a little reality flavor into its daytime lineup for the first time in late July with the “All My Children Sexiest Man in America Contest.”
The effort is significant for two reasons. It is the first time that a reality thread has been sewn into a daytime drama, and it is the first opportunity viewers have had to vote through premium cellphone text messaging in a reality program. Votes will cost 50 cents per call, offering the network a chance to generate additional revenue, said Bruce Gersh, VP, business development, ABC Entertainment.
The contest began July 28 and runs through Aug. 29. In the show, “All My Children” characters Greenlee Smythe (Rebecca Budig) and Kendall Hart (Alicia Minshew) launch the “Sexiest Man” contest to search for a spokesman for their new cosmetics company, Fusion. “Instead of just keeping it on air, we bring it into the real world,” Mr. Gersh said.
The contestants are introduced to viewers through interstitials and promotions and occasionally when a character is watching a tape of one of the men. The winner will appear on the show.
Viewers cast their ballots each week for one of five contestants, who were chosen by network executives after a nationwide talent search. In addition to the text messaging votes-which can be sent through T-Mobile, AT&T Wireless and Cingular phones-viewers can vote online at abc.com.
That’s a departure from traditional reality TV voting in which viewers vote via 1-800 numbers, online or through nonpremium text messaging, said Steinar Svalesen, CEO of Telenor Mobile Interactive USA in Rockville. Md., which provides the text messaging voting for the contest.
To encourage viewers to shell out more than a couple of quarters, ABC is offering those who vote at least three times in a week a special story scoop about an upcoming episode, delivered to their cellphones at the end of that week.
Consumers will be willing to pay for something they once received for free, since many businesses move to a pay model as they gain acceptance, said Jimmy Schaeffler, analyst with the Carmel Group. Besides, 50 cents per call is reasonable for the consumer and may yield a nice ancillary revenue stream for the content provider, he said.
Mr. Gersh also expects the contest will be the start of a new revenue opportunity for daytime. The pay model has proven successful in Europe, where viewers have grown accustomed to interacting with reality shows through their cellphones, he said. “I think you will see premium service in Europe has proven there is a business model there. It’s likely everybody will be exploring this opportunity here, but it really has to be the right fit,” he said.
The revenue is split three ways-between the wireless carrier, the facilitator (Telenor Mobile) and the content company (ABC).
While ITV has stalled in the United States, text messaging provides the chance to bypass the set-top box and allow viewer participation through a more ubiquitous technology, the cellphone.
“In essence we are delivering ITV through the use of wireless technology that is widely deployed in the market,” Mr. Svalesen said. “We think there is a value proposition that you can interact with your cellphone, which you usually have next to you during the show, instead of going into another room to get the phone or log in to the computer,” he said.
ABC would not reveal usage or voting figures from the contest.
Daytime is the natural venue to test new technology, since the daypart has traditionally been on the cutting edge of new business models, Mr. Gersh said. For instance, three years ago, ABC created “Shop the Soaps,” through which the network places jewelry on its soap stars and then sells the jewelry through commercials.
There are about 148 million wireless customers in the United States, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. Of these, 27 million ages 12 and older use text messaging, up from 18 million in 2002, according to Upoc, a group that creates and manages mobile communities, including those using text messaging to stay in touch.