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‘Fear’ Puts Viewers Closer to Reality

Feb 2, 2004  •  Post A Comment

When contestants on NBC’s “Fear Factor” immerse themselves in a box full of 500 tarantulas this month, some AT&T Wireless subscribers will play along.
The daring reality show with an off-the-scales ick factor will allow mobile phone users to participate vicariously by answering questions on their Nokia cellular handsets as the show’s participants engage in grotesque, skin-crawling stunts in the quest for payoff and adventure.
The wireless carrier and NBC will test-drive this real-time multimedia interactivity during a monthlong February sweeps trial starting Feb. 2. In fact, ITV on mobile phones is quickly emerging as one of the most popular forms of interactive TV today.
“All My Children” relied on cellphone text messaging for its “Sexiest Man in America” contest last summer, and text messaging has become a staple of audience participation for Fox hit “American Idol.” Now “Fear Factor” aims to take cellphone interactivity to another level by synching it directly to the broadcast in a play-along fashion.
With video-on-demand and anticipated market plays by DirecTV and EchoStar cited as the future of interactivity, cellular phones serve as an ITV “extending device” in the interim, said Ben Mendelson, president of the Interactive Television Alliance.
The “Fear Factor” ITV test runs through the February sweeps and scoring for participants is cumulative. Like the contestants, viewers compete against each other in real time for the chance to win money, in this case $5,000.
Unlike “Fear Factor,” they don’t have to swallow worm sausages, tote cow tails in their mouths or make cow eye juice with their teeth.
Cellphone users can vote on such issues as who will win the grand prize, how difficult or gross a stunt is or how many tarantulas are in that box.
The ITV application also will showcase facts from the stunts, such as the hometown of the tarantulas and how much it cost to ship them to the show, said Matt Kunitz, the show’s executive producer.
Living Vicariously
The interactive pilot will allow NBC and AT&T Wireless to learn how viewers respond and whether they consider the service fun and competitive, said Elizabeth Sherman, VP, new media, at Endemol USA, which produces the show.
“Fear Factor” lends itself to audience interaction. “Reality shows make the most sense for interactivity because people like to live vicariously through the TV,” Mr. Kunitz said. “We shoot the show in a way to make you feel like you are there and you have that visceral feeling. So to take it one step further, [Endemol] has come up with this [interactive test].”
Ms. Sherman said Endemol will conduct surveys at the end of sweeps to determine audience interest in the ITV application.
The service will be available to a small number of AT&T subscribers so the carrier can test its viability, said AT&T Wireless spokeswoman Danielle Perry.
AT&T Wireless will not charge a fee to participate, but standard data charges will apply, depending on the customer’s wireless plan.
The Jan. 12 premiere of the current run of “Couples Fear Factor” scored 16.2 million viewers and a 7 rating/18 share in the 18 to 49 demographic, according to NBC. For the season to date, the show averages a 5.6/15 in adults 18 to 49 and is seen by about 13.2 million viewers each Monday night.
The convergence of the TV and the cellphone is also evident in MobiTV, a new service from Idetic that debuted in November and that streams live TV content to Sprint PCS mobile phones. In fact, MobiTV carried the president’s State of the Union address last month. Other content providers include ABC News Live, MSNBC, CNBC, Discovery Channel, College Sports Television and The Learning Channel.
“There has been a trend to deliver customer content to the handset,” said Phillip Alvelda, CEO of Idetic. The company is working on deals with other wireless carriers, he said.
The mobile user base represents a new distribution platform for television content, since it allows content providers to reach viewers while they are away from their TV sets, Mr. Alvelda said.
In time, the cellphone will evolve into an advanced remote control for the TV, Mr. Mendelson predicted.
There are nearly 155 million wireless customers in the United States, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.