'Idol' expands its digital boundaries

Average 'Idol' fan texted 38 votes last April

"American Idol" calls the Fox network its home. But for an increasing number of viewers, the show is a very portable obsession.

No, you still can't vote for your favorite singers online. But from computers to iPods to AT&T-enabled phones, few shows are as tech-savvy as "Idol."

"It really is the perfect show for a digital extension," AmericanIdol.com GM Don Wilcox said. "And we've made the most of it."

That means a Web site that was fully redesigned this year to include a built-in social network (MyIdol), archival downloads, access to exclusive clips, desktop downloads and a video player that users can embed as a widget.

On the mobile front, AT&T now provides customers with "Idol" trivia, e-cards, mobile videoclips of outrageous auditions and a $1 million sweepstakes. And don't forget the all-important ability to text-message support for Adam or Danny. In the show's first season, viewers texted in 7.5 million votes. Last year, that number had jumped to 80 million. NielsenMobile reports that the average "Idol" viewer voted using text messaging 38 times in April 2008.

AT&T has developed a relationship with consumers based on their love of texting "Idol" votes, which the company then uses to pitch other services. "We've chosen to educate viewers about answer tones, ringtones and cellular video," says Patrick Burns, AT&T executive director for national consumer marketing. "Then we build on it from year to year."

A new digital partner for the show is Apple's iTunes, which now provides downloads of virtually every song performed on the post-audition programs. Contestants this season have even been shown listening to their own performances on their iPods.

Ironically, the one unexplored digital frontier is the TV set. American viewers are missing out on something Europeans have enjoyed for some time-interaction with the program as it airs live, either to play games or get more information about what's going on.

"America is lagging a bit behind Europe with that," said Keith Hindle, executive VP of licensing/Americas for the show's producer Fremantle Media. "The technology isn't there yet."