Late at night on a television station in Lansing, Michigan, a new kind of program tries to make the audience the main attraction. It’s called TextMeTV, and it goes like this: One or two young hosts, some of them college students, sit on a couch and read text messages being sent in live from viewers, and those messages are also posted on a box in the corner of the screen. Sometimes the hosts encourage those texters to debate topics of the day, other times they offer free iPods or other prizes to viewers who can answer trivia questions.
The show looks more like a YouTube page than a television show. Though moderators do edit the text messages that come in before they post them to the screen, the show is live with no tape delay, says Helena Kirby, a producer for the show and one of its 7 rotating hosts. “There’s no swearing and no sexual talk — we keep it pretty clean,” she adds. Viewers pay a small fee per text message to participate.
Ms. Kirby says the show’s best moments have been when viewers sparred about race issues or politics. “People get fired up,” she says. But this January the show — which has been on since last year — began focusing more on games and contests, like trivia challenges, than on debates.
One entertainment blogger recently called the show “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” noting that the show seems empty of substance.
But Ms. Kirby argues that it represents a revolutionary new format. “I think some people are just afraid of it — that this new concept is going to do something big, and they don’t want it to,” she says. “I say, Out with the old, in the with the new.”
Amariee Woods, another host of the show who is a senior at Michigan State University, says that younger audiences want to participate, not just passively consume media. “People want to put their comments on everything, and the faster they can do that, the better.”
A similar show in Texas called Subtext, which features students from the University of Texas at Austin, uses a similar format but focuses on dating.
The shows are essentially trying to turn television into something more like the Internet. In fact, the shows would probably work better as interactive Web pages where people could put aside their cell phones and interact with their computer keyboards. But then the show’s producers would not be able to make a cut of the text-messaging fees, as they do now.
Do younger viewers now see one-way broadcast television as dull? Or are these interactive shows a sign that media companies are trying to mix many kinds of media formats? Use your computer keyboard to let us know what you think. —Jeffrey R. Young