It's Your Call

Media heavyweights are offering models for everyone from kids to sports nuts

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When a TV star based in Hollywood is engaged to a basketball player, she's going to spend a lot of time apart from him. But San Antonio Spur Tony Parker's fiancée, Eva Longoria of ABC's Desperate Housewives, catches up with his latest exploits using a new cell phone that picks up scores and video clips from ESPN. "I just whip out my ESPN phone," Longoria told David Letterman recently.

Increasingly, media powerhouses such as ESPN (DIS ), MTV (VIA ), and Walt Disney (DIS ) are adding customized content to their own brands of cell phones. At $50 a month and more, the handsets and service, aimed at sports fans, teens, and parents who want to keep track of their cell-toting kids, aren't cheap, and the content is a work in progress. Still, some show promise, others are pretty good already.

The ESPN phone is a sleek black-and-red handset with the kind of instant access to sports scores and scrolling news tickers that would appeal to die-hard sports fans.

Hit the little "E" at the top of the menu, and you get the phone's sports page. I easily found the box score for a just-concluded Los Angeles Lakers-Phoenix Suns basketball game, along with short clips featuring Lakers star Kobe Bryant and coach Phil Jackson.

Like other so-called Mobile Virtual Network Operators, ESPN markets the service but buys phone capacity from a carrier (in this case, Sprint Nextel (S )). And like multimedia on most cell phones, the service stutters when the signal is weak. There's also a delay while videos are loaded. ESPN does its best to compensate during your wait by offering trivia questions. The phone's only problem is that it doesn't receive actual ESPN telecasts. It just gets some video clips and the network's nightly schedule. You can buy the phone at or electronics retailer Best Buy (BBY ).

With young teens spending much of their lives on their cells, Richard Branson's Virgin Mobile has signed 4 million customers since launching nearly four years ago. Virgin's service offers hip-hop ringtones, jokes from Comedy Central as a voice mail greeting, and such rough-and-tumble games as True Crime: Streets of L.A.

My 16-year-old daughter was especially taken with the high-end Virgin phone that opens to reveal a tiny keyboard and screen for text messaging. She loves the phone's ability to recognize and send her, via text message, the names of songs she hears on the radio for $1 a pop. (You hold the phone up to the radio, push *43.) The big drawback: It's a prepaid plan -- you buy minutes before you use them -- instead of pay-as-you-go pricing.

Amp'd Mobile, a glitzy service backed by MTV and Universal Records intended for dudes under 30, launched earlier this year. It has crisp video streams of Motocross races and female anchors from the Web's Naked News who strip and read. The picture, however, is tiny.

Helio, another entry for young adults, just landed this month. A joint venture from EarthLink (ELNK ) and South Korea's SK Telecom (SKM ), it features stereo sound and eye-popping visuals for games, but at a pricey $250 and $275 per phone. While it offers news and music, for now Helio exists mostly to facilitate social networking, with an exclusive deal that allows members to check their MySpace pages and update them with pictures and videos.

If your kids are younger, Walt Disney aims to help you control their cell-phone usage with models due in June that let you limit their minutes and restrict use to certain times of day and specific phone numbers. With the phones' built-in GPS receivers, you can locate your offspring via a map on your own Disney handset or the service's Web site. A "family alert" feature will send messages to family members with Disney phones, and the phones will be priced at a family-friendly $60 and $110.

Most of these specialty phones offer video snippets or plan to, but real-time TV isn't in the picture for now. For that you'll need a service such as MobiTV, available for about $10 a month on compatible phones through Sprint and Cingular Wireless. MobiTV offers 25 or so cable channels, including MSNBC, Fox Sports Net, the Discovery Channel -- and ESPN. Perfect for Longoria if she ever wants to catch more than her fiancé.

By Ronald Grover

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