The term "900 number" probably conjures up images of phone sex operators or, even worse, teen heartthrobs tricking young girls into running up their parents' phone bills. But during the 1980s and 1990s, the heyday of 900 numbers, callers could do all sorts of things simply by dialing 1-900 and having a charge added to their phone bills. Let's take a look at some of the more interesting examples.
1. ASK PRESIDENT CARTER A QUESTION
The very earliest 900 numbers weren't built around exorbitant per-minute charges; they only set callers back for their normal long-distance rates. In March 1977, callers could dial a special 900 number and ask President Jimmy Carter a question for a national radio broadcast moderated by Walter Cronkite.
Ever wonder what's going on during a space shuttle mission? During the 1980s, NASA ran a 900 number that filled you in. For $2 for the first minute and $.45 per additional minute, callers could listen in on mission status reports and any press conferences NASA held mid-flight. The number was originally created so journalists could listen to conversation between the shuttle and mission control. The hotline later became public, which made for a horrifying situation when thousands of callers heard the Challenger explosion in real time.
3. KILL OFF ROBIN
DC Comics found itself in an awkward spot in 1988 when Batman fans had become truly sick of Jason Todd, the second character to fill the role of Robin. DC didn't know what to do with the character, though, so the writers let the fans decide. At the end of Batman #427, the Joker brutally beat Robin and left him to die in an explosion. DC printed a 900 number in that issue and gave voters a 36-hour window to call and vote on whether the Boy Wonder should live or die. Fans killed off Robin by a 5343 to 5271 margin, which led to outcry among old-guard comic fans and writers. (Jason Todd later miraculously came back to life.)
4. SAVE LARRY THE LOBSTER
In 1983, Saturday Night Live ran a sketch in which Eddie Murphy held up "Larry the Lobster" and let viewers call a 900 number to decide whether or not he would boil the tasty crustacean. The voters apparently had a soft sport for Larry and narrowly voted to save him from the pot. (Murphy boiled the lobster anyway.)
5. FOLLOW D.J. JAZZY JEFF AND THE FRESH PRINCE
D.J. Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, a.k.a. Will Smith, spent much of the late 1980s touring and recording albums, but they were also keeping busy with a 900 number. In 1989 the duo was pulling in over 100,000 calls a week to hear a series of daily two-minute messages about their wacky adventures. According to a 1989 report in The New York Times, the duo's annual income from their hotline alone was "well into six figures."
6. PICK YOUR PRESIDENT
During the 1980 presidential debate, NBC allowed viewers to call a 900 number to log their preference for Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. The results were the same as in the actual election: The audience preferred Reagan. Actual pollsters were distressed about these widely reported results since the poll's sample wasn't randomly selected. In 1983, NBC's Nightline quit using the unscientific 900-number-driven polls.
7. LEARN THE FUTURE
If you were watching TV in the 1990s, it was tough to avoid Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends Network and its ubiquitous cheesy commercials. Although the Psychic Friends Network was a target for all sorts of parody and mockery, it also took in loads of cash; at its peak, the 900 number's annual gross was over $140 million [PDF]. However, bad luck, management blunders, and competition from the Miss Cleos of the world eventually drove the company into bankruptcy.
8. SCRIPT THE A-TEAM
How could NBC possibly improve on the perfection of The A-Team? By letting the viewers vote for an episode's ending. In November 1986 the show featured an episode in which Hannibal and the team brought a political-adviser-turned-felon played by Jeff Corey back to the States.
Throughout the episode, there were hints that the team's target may have been "Faceman" Peck's long-lost father. NBC then charged viewers 50 cents to call a 900 number that allowed them to vote on whether or not the show should include a revelation about Face's paternity. Viewers voted to have the political adviser be Face's father.
9. LISTEN TO JOSE CANSECO
After Jose Canseco became baseball's first player to ever hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season en route to winning the 1988 AL MVP, he became an icon to sports fans and teenage girls alike. In 1989 Canseco debuted "DIAL JOSE," a 900 number on which he opined about everything from baseball to the trappings of fame. In its first two months of operation, the hotline raked in over $500,000, with Canseco reportedly pocketing a 75 percent cut of that revenue. The 900 number's administrators later told the press, "Jose was a great success with our usual target audience—14- to 18-year-old girls. They wanted to hear what he had to say."
10. LISTEN IN ON THE PIT CREW
In the early 1990s, open-wheel racing fans could listen in on the banter between Indy 500 drivers and their pit crews for $1.50 a minute. Since most of the discussion was full of highly technical jargon, the line also had a commentator that translated the lingo for the average fan. The Wall Street Journal commented, "The line delivers, but much of the chat is fuzzy."
11. TALK TO KITTY, THE FIRST LADY OF BASKETBALL
Phone sex and gambling tips obviously had big places in the 900 number landscape. Kitty, the First Lady of Basketball, managed to combine both worlds. For $3 a minute callers got sports betting advice from a sultry-voiced woman. As the Philadelphia Inquirer noted in 1991, though, Kitty's real brilliance was that she stretched out her recordings so well; callers didn't actually receive any sexy betting advice until the 11-minute mark, at which point they were already $33 in the bag.
12. CHAT WITH ALL SORTS OF WRESTLERS
During the '80s and '90s, grappling skills were only part of what made a successful professional wrestler. The majority of the skill set apparently revolved around having your own 900 number. Hulk Hogan's 1-900-454-HULK was the top-grossing 900 number during the early '90s, and everyone from Mean Gene Okerlund to Captain Lou Albano had their own hotline for behind-the-scenes scoops and interviews. Here's Captain Lou shilling for his: