Before there was the internet, a constant stream of funny and informative and weird and outright dumb shit flowing endlessly into your eyeballs, there was the 1-900 number, which was pretty much the same thing, except into your ear and—if you didn’t watch out—potentially very expensive.
Priceonomics has a very entertaining history of the 1-900 number, whose glory days began in the late 1980s:
In 1987, AT&T started a national program that allowed 900 number information providers—people who provided the audio content—the chance to earn money from their numbers. Similar to the way anyone can now start their own e-commerce website, AT&T opened up the 900 program to any entrepreneur who had an idea, and set a price of up to $2.00 for the first minute of a call (and more for additional minutes). An entirely new information economy opened up overnight, and the first 900 number entrepreneurs struck gold.
They spoke to Bob Bentz, author of Opportunity Is Calling: How to Start Your Own Successful 900 Number, who ditched his job selling ads at local CBS affiliate—including late-night spots popular with 1-900 operators—to get into the business himself. Three decades later the form is most associated with “adult” incarnations, but it was really a wild boom where entrepreneurs were experimenting with all sorts of content schemes:
Bentz founded a company called Advanced Telecom Services to assist 900 number entrepreneurs, and soon he’d helped launch phone lines that look like a preview of today’s most popular websites.
ATS’s first big success story was a crossword puzzle line with the New York Daily News. If you were into the daily crossword, but got stuck on 19-across, you could call the hotline and get the answer.
ATS also created a large network of sports lines with an emphasis on college football recruiting. There was no Internet to speak of, so if you were a Florida Gators alum living in Salt Lake City, and you wanted to hear interviews with coaches and the latest recruiting news, you could call the Gatorbait Hotline. One Gators fanatic in 1992 said he spent $400 monthly on calls.
In many ways, the 1-900 boom was a preview of the modern internet. (Though making money was more straightforward.) This makes for a great opportunity to revisit some of the commercials that have been handed down through the years as artifacts.
Ice-T apparently had his own hotline.
As did the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff. “This was so wild to people—that you could pick up the phone and hear a star like Will Smith on the phone, telling you things that were going on in his life,” Cory Eisner, formerly VP of sales and marketing at the hotline operator Phone Programs Inc., told Fast Company.
You could also kick it with the “Boglins,” whatever the fuck that was. For an operator like Phone Programs Inc., the turnaround on executing and evaluating new lines was fast, “pretty much instant,” explained Eisner. “If you came with an idea, and you marketed it, you could find out within a day or two if you had a winner, because you’re judging it on the number of phone calls that were coming in.” Books were churned out, offering advice for those looking to get into the business.
Here’s a commercial for the Santa hotline, circa 1989, which appears to have been filmed in my grandparents’ den:
And here is a commercial for 1-900-660-6666, which appears to be a Santa line despite the fact that it contains the numbers “666” and was, at least in some point in the summer of 1987, the number you’d call to receive a “special monster message” related to the movie Monster Squad. But then, if you’re in the middle of a gold rush, you probably don’t worry about how to sustain your horror-line business through the months of the year that aren’t October when there are children very excited about Santa can run up their parents’ phone bills.
In 1993, the Federal Trade Commission made it mandatory for all 900 numbers to include a message at the beginning of calls explaining the potential cost and giving the caller a chance to hang up with no fee. Carriers had to allow customers to block the usage of all 900 numbers from their homes (to prevent use by children and pay-per-call addicts). The FTC also made it illegal to advertise numbers to children under age 12.
Nothing lasts forever, of course, and eventually the business collapsed into a pale imitation of its former self. Essentially, it was the one-two punch of regulation and also the internet:
Free or just plain better websites replaced expensive phone calls. Sports fanlines became fansites. Dating lines became dating sites (became dating apps). Sports recruiting lines turned into recruiting websites. The pay-per-call industry didn’t so much die as move online.
As it became more and more difficult to collect from consumers, telephone carriers dropped out of the 900 number business. AT&T left in 2002. And in 2012, the last 900 carrier standing—Verizon, owners of MCI—announced they were done. In the U.S. at least, the 900 number era was over.