Reality TV Rolls out “Biggest Yet” SMS Promo

Universal Domestic Television is jumping on the text messaging bandwagon with the launch of what it’s describing as the largest yet cross-carrier short messaging service (SMS) promotion in the U.S., for its syndicated reality dating show, “The 5th Wheel.”

Beginning with the show’s October 16 telecast and continuing for four weeks, viewers with SMS-enabled phones will be able to enter a contest by sending a text message to a five-digit code.

A series of promotional spots during the show will prompt viewers to opt-in to the promotion. Participants will receive reminders about the show and can play for prizes, including a Porsche Boxster.

“With the growing importance of viewer participation, text messaging is a natural extension of our programming,” said Dan Weiss, executive VP of worldwide marketing for Universal Television Distribution. “Wireless users are the ideal demographic for us and we’re glad that it’s so easy for our viewers to interact with the show.”

The effort marks an expansion of the use of short codes, which have been touted as both a source for incremental carrier revenue (carriers can bill premium rates for short code messages); and an easier way to communicate via phone (a short code is easier to remember than a 10-digit number).

Use of short codes, both premium and standard rate, has so far been hobbled by a lack of carrier interoperability. With the help of mobile technology firm m-Qube, the 5th Wheel campaign overcame that problem. The show teamed with m-Qube to launch the campaign and ensure messages can be sent and received by subscribers of the top U.S. carriers.

Due to its cross-carrier nature, M-Qube said the campaign will enable participation for far more wireless subscribers than U.S. short code promotions have until now supported. Participating carriers include Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, Nextel Communications, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular, representing an 80 million subscriber base.

The contest differs from the SMS promotion launched for American Idol earlier this year because that show, which according to its producers garnered over 8 million text messages, was sponsored by just one carrier. American Idol used a voting-based promotion, whereas the 5th Wheel campaign has a “watch ‘n win” format

The trend toward viewer participation on television may owe its rise in part to PVR technology. Devices like TiVo allow users to bypass traditional commercials. As a traditional revenue stream diminishes, broadcasters and advertisers are seeking new ways to transmit brand messages on TV. Product placement is making a comeback. Viewer voting via SMS may be part of that trend, opening a channel for carriers and networks to earn incremental revenue while increasing viewers’ personal relationship with a show.

A second tier of the 5th Wheel contest begins the first week of November, when Universal rolls out a radio promotion in 15 markets. The spot will encourage listeners to text in their city to participate in the promotion, also supported by a national online media campaign.

“Reality dating shows like The 5th Wheel are hot, and m-Qube is bringing audience interaction via text messaging into the mainstream,” said Mike Troiano, senior VP of business development for m-Qube

Viewers enter the contest by text messaging the name of “the 5th wheel” to the short code WHEEL. They receive a message confirming they’ve opted in that reminds them to watch the show to participate in the contest.

It’s unclear how much domestic demand there is for short codes. Jupiter Research, which shares a parent corporation with this site, says while standardization of codes among U.S. carriers is nearly complete, adoption of SMS in the U.S. significantly trails Europe and Asia and will continue to do so.

A Jupiter Research survey last August asked consumers to rate their interest in various forms of wireless communication. Using SMS to participate in TV promotions and sweepstakes as well as other automated SMS services ranked low with online consumers, aged 35 and over. Consumers ages 18 to 34 had only moderate interest in these activities.

Cross-carrier short codes aren’t truely cross-carrier. Sprint phones create WAP-based short mail, not SMS. On-air promotions will not list the compatible carriers. So when Sprint’s 18.8 million customers send messages using a short code, they’ll get a cryptic error message, or no response at all.

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