Must-Text TV
In Finland, viewers pay millions to make their SMS messages the stars of late-night shows.
By Matthew Maier

(Business 2.0) – On a recent spring evening near the coast in Helsinki, Vesku Paananen spent hour after hour sending text messages to his television. It's lonely on the dark side of the 60th parallel, but Paananen hadn't gone mad. A tech-savvy entrepreneur, he was using his Sony Ericsson phone to compete in a text-based game show on Finnish broadcast network YLE. His goal? To beat dozens of other cell-phone-messaging players at Quiz, a barroom-style trivia contest in which participants race to type the correct answers to brainteasers. Paananen's phone bill for the night's entertainment: $30. "I love feeling part of a community," he says.

Paananen is one of thousands of Finns who turn to the boob tube each day for chat, text-based games, and other alphanumeric entertainment. Such "programs" typically air after prime time, with the most popular ones—like the 3-D golf game Putti—occasionally receiving more than 4,000 messages per hour. With consumers paying about $1 per missive, such shows can generate sales of as much as $120,000 a month. Not bad in a country where television stations used to fill late-night time slots with Dallas reruns, or frequently nothing at all.

Finland's biggest provider of SMS-to-TV programming, with roughly a third of the local market, is Helsinki-based Sofia Digital. "All the biggest channels in the country carry our shows," says Olli Väätäinen, a Sofia VP. The company has been producing text-only games since 2002, but now some of them—like FusionX, a Tetris-style puzzle challenge—are so popular that they include a split screen in which live moderators discuss strategy and dissect players' moves. There are also chat rooms where viewers taunt one another and brag about recent victories. "The moderators really boosted participation," says Kaapo Seppänen, a business development manager at Finland's Nelonen network. "Sending in an SMS is a subscriber's three seconds of fame."

That's good news for Sofia, as well as for broadcasters and wireless network operators that also take a cut of the messaging fees paid by viewers. Details of the revenue split are hard to come by, but Sofia—with a staff of 30—says it recorded sales of $2 million from its interactive programs last year and expects to break even in 2005. The company's success has attracted rivals, including another Finnish firm, called RedLynx, that produces an interactive, text-based dating show. "It's an incredibly competitive situation, and not everyone will survive," Väätäinen says.

So Sofia is looking for opportunity beyond Finland's borders. It's already producing SMS-based game and chat shows for TV stations in other European countries, from Bulgaria to Switzerland. In Finland, its most lucrative market, Sofia has begun experimenting with live TV shows that let subscribers request songs via SMS. (The songs are then played on a popular radio station.) Väätäinen says it won't be long before broadcasters offer dedicated game channels and shows where viewers control the action, such as interactive soap operas in which outcomes are determined by text messages.

Who shot J.R.? Soon the answer could be left to the Finns and their phones. — MATTHEW MAIER