Friday, March 19, 2004 | 11:08 a.m.
Since February, millions of television viewers nationwide have had a chance to play bingo from their living room sofas rather than heading to a casino.
BingoTV is a live bingo game that broadcasts every Wednesday evening on the Dish Network satellite service. Viewers participate in the game by using free game cards and can win prizes ranging from television sets to golf clubs.
Dish Network's Denver-based parent EchoStar Communications Corp. announced the program Thursday after calling the experiment a success.
"Today you can sit and home and get every question on 'Jeopardy' right and only win the admiration of your spouse, " BingoTV President Ira Bahr said. "This is the first time anyone can sit home and win something from a TV show."
BingoTV, which is owned by EchoStar and has an exclusive broadcasting agreement with the satellite company, is developing other shows that would allow viewers to win prizes from home.
The show is broadcasting in 35 states including Nevada and is expected to be offered in the remaining 15 states by the end of the year.
It's legal under state laws, Bahr asserts.
The game is considered a sweepstakes rather than gambling because no purchase is necessary to play, he said. The 15 states that don't yet have BingoTV have stricter rules governing bingo games and how they are offered, he said.
"In the same way you can win a million dollars from a Pepsi promotion, we can give away prizes on TV," Bahr said. "We are confident we are going to be legal in just about every state. We're confident that these statutes were not designed to outlaw the kind of sweepstakes we're offering," he said.
The games also are free to non-Dish Network customers, who can write into the company to receive game cards and see the bingo numbers as they are posted on the company's Internet site.
The concept doesn't alarm Keith Copher, chief of enforcement for the Nevada Gaming Control Board.
"It sounds like it's O.K. to me," Copher said. "There's television contests all the time. This one just happens to be called 'bingo."'
The game is aimed at drawing interest to Dish Network service and cultivating customer loyalty, Bahr said. Its secondary purpose is to present an appealing way to showcase advertiser products that are given away as prizes, he said. Bahr is a former senior vice president of marketing for Dish Network who worked on advertising campaigns for GE, Pepsi and FedEx as an advertising agency executive.
Advertisers are dissatisfied with product placement efforts and are looking for new ways of showcasing their products on television, Bahr said. Similar to infomercials, each episode of BingoTV features lengthy displays and testimonials about products given away as prizes.
BingoTV is a concept that brings television another step closer to an age in which viewers can interact with shows using remote control devices, Las Vegas attorney and Internet gambling expert Tony Cabot said.
"It's a good idea and I think you'll see more of this," Cabot said.
U.S. cable companies are working toward interactive television concepts in which viewers could vote on the outcome of a contest such as their favorite singer or home video, for example, he said.
Several websites offer free games for prizes and make money by either collecting and selling customer information or by selling advertising, Cabot said.
Las Vegas casino companies also have dabbled in "play for fun" gambling websites. MGM MIRAGE, for example, offered games on the Internet that awarded prizes based on how long customers played the games. The company ultimately stopped the games, which were used as a test site in preparation for an Internet gambling site that opened and was later shut down in the United Kingdom for lack of profit potential.
Dish Network boasts 20 interactive television channels, the most of any broadcaster, company spokesman Marc Lumpkin said.
The channels include a weather network, game sites such as video poker and bowling and interactive news sites. A "fantasy sports" channel allows viewers to pick teams for a prize.
"We have all kinds of features for our customers to enhance their experience watching TV and so they don't get lured back to cable," Lumpkin said.
Dish Network is considering someday offering an interactive version of BingoTV that would allow viewers to use their remotes to pick numbers on an electronic card, Bahr said.