The ABC television network said yesterday that it has tapped local software developer Proteus to run a new online store where fans of ABC shows including soap operas such as "All My Children," the action series "Alias" and late-night talk show "Jimmy Kimmel Live" will be able to download custom ring tones and images to their cell phones.
"Alias" fans can download 20 images from the show to their phones for $1.99 each -- most showcasing the evolving hairstyles of star Jennifer Garner. "All My Children" fans will be able to memorialize a scene in which wealthy conniver JR Chandler confronts his stepfather, Tad, whenever they open their phone, following a short visit to ABC.com. Fans can also buy the theme songs of featured shows as ring tones at the site.
For ABC, it's an effort to find innovative ways to both promote its shows and squeeze fresh revenue from its franchises. For District-based Proteus, the ABC deal is just the latest evidence that the small local company has thrown off the "dot-com survivor" label and positioned itself as a player in the new, booming market of selling digital content to cell phone users.
As cell phones begin to feature Web access and slick color screens as standard features, consumers are starting to spend money for images, games and other digital add-ons. According to Boston research firm Ovum, wireless carriers derive about 5 percent of their revenue from non-voice-related data downloads, making this a $5 billion to $7 billion industry, according to analyst Roger Entner. Seattle research firm M:Metrics found that 9.56 percent of mobile phone subscribers downloaded a ring tone in June, a total of 17.3 million downloads.
Most cell phone download buyers have been male, and Proteus co-founder Timothy Shey said yesterday that he was excited to expand the potential market for his company's products. In the past, Proteus has frequently offered ring tones, screen savers and games tied to more male-oriented content, such as sporting events or TV shows such as HBO's mob series "The Sopranos." With an "ABC Mobile Store" promoting downloads from shows such as "General Hospital" and "One Life to Live," Proteus hopes to reach more female customers.
Shey said mobile content has typically been promoted by wireless carriers. With the ABC deal, he said, the products could get network exposure.
"ABC has the power to put that [Web address] everywhere," he said. "We want to reach a mainstream audience."
M:Metrics analyst Mark Donovan said he is most interested in coming products that both companies referred to yesterday as being in the works. For a monthly fee, for example, fans might be able to get regular text messages with previews, recaps or behind-the-scenes news from their favorite ABC shows. A joke-of-the-day from late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel is another possibility ABC and Proteus are considering.
Proteus, founded in 1996, started out as a company focused on developing software for the Web but has found a niche in the mobile content arena. A breakout moment for the company, according to Shey, was the 2002 Super Bowl, when Proteus was picked to run polls and quizzes during the game. Football fans could participate in them via their cell phones.
Proteus has done work for NBC, Discovery Channel and National Geographic. The company also has done business with The Washington Post's Web site, washingtonpost.com.
In addition to theme-song ring tones, ABC and Proteus said they are planning to make tracks available as answering-service messages when customers are unable to pick up their phones.
One proposed "ringback" script, which has not yet been recorded, would feature the voice of "One Life to Live" actor Michael Easton in his role as police detective John McBain:
"If you're the kidnapper, the money's on the way. Everyone else, please leave a message and be sure to leave a number."