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How ‘American Idol’ explains the text message’s rise and fall

This week's news that AT&T would stop sponsoring the long-running reality show "American Idol" -- don't worry, Coke and Ford are standing strong -- came with a strange bit of history. The telecom giant didn't sponsor the program simply because it wanted airtime alongside Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. It also wanted to encourage the use of text messages through "Idol's" system of audience members texting for their favorite contestant. And indeed, text message volume took off as "Idol" gained popularity:

(Data from

Text messaging itself was something of a replacement for voice calls, which have been declining for years. But just as all shows must go out of style eventually, so too has this particular mode of communication. Last year, independent telecom analyst Chetan Sharma calculated that people were starting to send fewer text messages:

(Chetan Sharma)

Now, you shouldn't infer a causal link between "Idol's" tanking viewership and the decline of the text message. But both were, in some ways, killed by their own popularity: The reality show concept spread throughout the television universe, spawning scores of copycat shows that devalued "Idol's" brand. And smartphone makers found many other mechanisms for subscribers to send textual notes back and forth without paying a fee to wireless carriers, from Blackberry's messenger service to the iPhone's iMessage, not to mention Skype. Now, telecom companies need to find some other kind of data to charge for -- or just raise prices on everything else.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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