Texting the Television
A. Once upon a time, if a television show with any self-respect wanted to target a young audience, it needed to have an e-mail address. However, in Europe’s TV shows, such addresses are gradually substituted by telephone numbers so that audiences can text the show from their mobile phones. Therefore, it comes as no shock that according to Gartner’s research, texting has recently surpassed Internet usage across Europe. Besides, among the many uses of text messaging, one of the fastest-growing uses is to interact with television. The statistics provided by Gartner can display that 20% of French teenagers, 11% in Britain and 9% in Germany have responded to TV programmes by sending a text message.
B. This phenomenon can be largely attributed to the rapid growth of reality TV shows such as ‘Big Brother’, where viewers get to decide the result through voting. The majority of reality shows are now open to text-message voting, and in some shows like the latest series of Norway’s ‘Big Brother’, most votes are collected in this manner. But TV-texting isn’t just about voting. News shows encourage viewers to, comment by texting messages; game shows enable the audience to be part of the competition; music shows answer requests by taking text messages; and broadcasters set up on-screen chatrooms. TV audiences tend to sit on the sofa with their mobile phones right by their sides, and ‘it’s a supernatural way to interact.’ says Adam Daum of Gartner.
C. Mobile service providers charge appreciable rates for messages to certain numbers, which is why TV-texting can bring in a lot of cash. Take the latest British series of ‘Big Brother’ as an example. It brought about 5.4m text-message votes and £1.35m ($2,1m) of profit. In Germany, MTV’s ‘Videoclash’ encourages the audience to vote for one of two rival videos, and induces up to 40,000 texts per hour, and each one of those texts costs €0.30 ($0.29), according to a consultancy based in Amsterdam. The Belgian quiz show ‘1 Against 100’ had an eight-round texting match on the side, which brought in 110,000 participants in one month, and each of them paid €0.50 for each question. In Spain, a cryptic-crossword clue invites the audience to send their answers through text at the expense of €1, so that they can be enrolled in the poll to win a €300 prize. Normally, 6,000 viewers would participate within one day.
At the moment, TV-related text messaging takes up a considerable proportion of mobile service providers’ data revenues. In July, Mm02 (a British operator) reported an unexpectedly satisfactory result, which could be attributed to the massive text waves created by ‘Big Brother’. Providers usually own 40%-50% of the profits from each text, and the rest is divided among the broadcaster, the programme producer and the company which supplies the message-processing technology. So far, revenues generated from text messages have been an indispensable part of the business model for various shows. Obviously, there has been grumbling that the providers take too much of the share. Endemol, the Netherlands-based production firm that is responsible for many reality TV, shows including ‘Big Brother’, has begun constructing its own database for mobile-phone users. It plans to set up a direct billing system with the users and bypass the providers.
D. How come the joining forces of television and text message turn out to be this successful? One crucial aspect is the emergence of one-of-a-kind four-, five- or six-digit numbers known as ‘short codes’. Every provider has control over its own short codes, but not until recently have they come to realise that it would make much more sense to work together to offer short codes compatible with all networks. The emergence of this universal short codes was a game-changer, because short codes are much easier to remember on the screen, according to Lars Becker of Flytxt, a mobile-marketing company.
E. Operators’ co-operation on enlarging the market is by a larger trend, observes Katrina Bond of Analysys, a consultancy. When challenged by the dilemma between holding on tight to their margins and permitting the emergence of a new medium, no provider has ever chosen the latter. WAP, a technology for mobile-phone users to read cut-down web pages on their screens, failed because of service providers’ reluctance towards revenue sharing with content providers. Now that they’ve learnt their lesson, they are altering the way of operating. Orange, a French operator, has come such a long way as to launch a rate card for sharing revenue of text messages, a new level of transparency that used to be unimaginable.
F. At a recent conference, Han Weegink of CMG, a company that offers the television market text-message infrastructure, pointed out that the television industry is changing in a subtle yet fundamental way. Instead of the traditional one-way presentation, more and more TV shows are now getting viewers’ reactions involved. Certainly, engaging the audiences more has always been the promise of interactive TV. An interactive TV was originally designed to work with exquisite set-top devices, which could be directly plugged into the TV. However, as Mr Daum points out, that method was flawed in many ways. Developing and testing software for multiple and incompatible types of set-top box could be costly, not to mention that the 40% (or lower) market penetration is below that of mobile phones (around 85%). What’s more, it’s quicker to develop and set up apps for mobile phones. ‘You can approach the market quicker, and you don’t have to go through as many greedy middlemen,’ Mr Daum says. Providers of set-top box technology are now adding texting function to the design of their products.
G. The triumph of TV-related texting reminds everyone in the business of how easily a fancy technology can all of a sudden be replaced by a less complicated, lower-tech method. That being said, the old-fashioned approach to interactive TV is not necessarily over; at least it proves that strong demands for interactive services still exist. It appears that the viewers would sincerely like to do more than simply staring at the TV screen. After all, couch potatoes would love some thumb exercises.