AT&T Says Eighth Season of "American Idol" Saw Record Levels of Text-Based Interactivity

--However, Questions Emerge over Fairness of Voting Process

AT&T says that viewers interacting with the recently concluded eighth season of the interactive TV reality series, "American Idol," sent 178 million text messages over its network--the highest total for any season and more than double the 78 million messages that it reported last year. According to the company, which is the exclusive provider of text messaging services for the show, text message traffic counted in its tally includes not only text votes, but other ways in which fans interacted with the show via text messages, including answering weekly trivia questions, opting in to receive voting number reminders (a weekly text message listing of all the remaining contestants and the numbers viewers need to call in order to vote for them), submitting questions to AT&T-hosted chat sessions with outgoing contestants, and participating in an AT&T sweepstakes (according to AT&T, 191,000 customers participated in the Sweepstakes, which gave participants a chance to win $1 million).

AT&T also reports that more than twice as many AT&T customers played the show's weekly "Idol Trivia" game via text this season, compared to last; and that the number of customers who opted in to receive voting number reminders was 70% higher than last season. Viewers who opted for vote number reminders this season sent nearly twice as many text votes than the overall voting population, the company says. In addition, according to AT&T, "American Idol" ringtones proved especially popular this year, at one point (week of May 10th) accounting for 15 of the top 100 ringtones offered by the company. "'American Idol' is a smash hit with our customers, so just as Fox raises the bar every year for the show, every season we work to bring our customers new ways to get their 'Idol' fix through our products and services," Andy Wilson, VP of national marketing for AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets, said in a prepared statement. "We feel this season was our best yet, evidenced not only by heavy texting traffic but in the great response to the other terrific 'Idol'-related content we made available."

In addition to powering "American Idol's" interactivity and organizing a sweepstakes around the show, AT&T offered its customers "sneak peeks" of new music videos from previous winners, Kelly Clarkson and David Cook: following previews of the videos during the show's commercial breaks, full-length versions of Clarkson's "My Life Would Suck without You" and Cook's "Come Back to Me" could be accessed on AT&T mobile phones, on the VOD platform of the company's U-verse TV IPTV service, and on its att.net Web site.

AT&T and Fox Broadcasting have not had much of an opportunity to gloat over "American Idol's" interactive success, as the show's voting process is now the subject of a minor scandal: the New York Times reported Tuesday (picking up a story that originally appeared--though to little notice--in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette) that AT&T may have influenced the outcome of the show's final vote by "providing phones for free text-messaging services and lessons in casting blocks of votes" at two parties organized in Arkansas by supporters of the show's eventual winner, Arkansas singer Kris Allen, after the show's final episode. According to the Times, AT&T representatives who attended the parties, instructed attendees on how to send "power texts"--i.e. how to press a single button to send 10 messages at a time; the newspaper says that AT&T made no efforts to provide similar services to supporters of the show's other finalist, Adam Lambert. An AT&T spokesperson issued the following statement to the Times: "In Arkansas, we were invited to attend the local watch parties organized by the community. A few local employees brought a small number of demo phones with them and provided texting tutorials to those who were interested."

The Times argues that AT&T's activities at the party may have violated "American Idol" rules in two ways: 1) at the end of each episode, an on-screen message warns viewers that blocks of votes that were cast using "technical enhancements" and that unfairly influence the result of the vote can be thrown out; and 2) the show also regularly states that text voting is open only to AT&T customers and subject to normal rates. According to a follow-up report in Wednesday's Times, Fox Broadcasting and "American Idol" producers, FremantleMedia North American and 19 Entertainment, have issued a statement that they are "absolutely certain" that AT&T employees' attendance at the Kris Allen support parties did not influence the show's outcome and that "Kris Allen is, without a doubt, the American Idol." The statement went on to say that "an independent third-party monitoring procedure [is] in place to ensure the integrity of the voting process." According to the Times, a Fox spokesperson "declined to comment on the margin of victory that Mr. Allen held over the runner-up, Adam Lambert" and Fox and AT&T representatives "declined to comment on whether similar texting services were offered at other viewing parties this year or in previous seasons." AT&T assured the Times that "going forward we will make sure our employees understand our sponsorship celebrates the competition, not individual contestants."

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