An announcement from ESPN this week seems to have fallen outside of the mobile industry's radar, but to me it indicates just how quickly the mobile Web is accelerating. According to the sports brand, traffic to its mobile Web sites rose 82% between September 2008 and September 2009. On its best day last month, the mobile iteration of ESPN.com had 8.1 million visits, trumped this month by an 8.5-million-visit day. Not only is that a huge number, but if you put it in the larger mobile Web universe of 60 million or so U.S. mobile Web users (per Nielsen), it also means that a single sports brand has an awfully big share of the mobile audience.
Even if those "visits" are not equal to unique visitors, ESPN's numbers surely suggest that there is a massive opportunity here for first movers to own pieces of the mobile future. Along with Weather.com, ESPN is the dominant TV presence on the mobile Web. Which made me wonder. If the opportunity is so great for TV brands on the mobile Web, where is everyone else?
To be fair, ESPN and Weather Channel, CNN, MSNBC, CBSNews, etc. offer mobile users an obvious utility that most other TV brands do not. Nevertheless, as Hulu ramps up its prime-time content on the Web, and each of the major networks is turning their sites into DVRs of a sort, I was wondering how some of these entities are leveraging the mobile Web.
Not well. ABC's feature phone mobile site (or at least what I think is their presence here) is unwittingly ironic. The "ABC Start Here" tagline is belied by a barren selection of three shows for which there are backgrounders, photos, episode guides and an invitation to get SMS alerts that aren't even explained. Is this the same Disney corporation that is smart enough to lead its front page of ESPN Mobile with a play button to get the latest video clip? Shouldn't a TV brand lead with its core asset?
On the other hand, I did discover an ABC.com site formatted for the iPhone that is considerably better, albeit still too barren. The carousel marquee features the night's programming, but you just click through to a descriptive blurb. The Video section has select clips but no full episodes I could see. Okay, ABC. I will "stop here."
CBS's mobile site is much more sophisticated and involved than ABC's but it is predictably promotional. Here is the fall season, the news shows, etc. There is nothing wrong with this approach, except that it does beg the question of use case. Do any of us really identify TV programming with specific networks anymore? Do we rush to a network Web site to see what CBS or NBC is offering this season? As the shows themselves become disengaged from prime time more and more, there is the basic conundrum for networks of what their brand identity and function is.
To its credit, CBS does justice to the catalog of shows, with photos, video clips, etc. that are much better organized than even ABC's iPhone Web site. CBS streams full episodes of select current shows like "CSI" and "NCIS," as well as older fare like "MacGyver." The streaming of the soap opera "The Young and the Restless" seems to me a great idea and opportunity. I come from a family of soap addicts. This is the one remaining TV genre that is heavily identified with networks and that people just don't want to miss. I probably could get my mother, who cannot use a computer mouse, to get a smart phone just so she can monitor her "stories" on demand. I still wonder, however, if the individual shows should have their own dedicated Web and mobile destinations.
Among the three old timers of network TV, NBC comes closest to leveraging the mobile use case and the timeliness of a mobile Web site. A carousel marquee actually previews the specific episodes for the evening, with prime time laid out just below the fold. Full episodes of the most recent Leno show is right below that, as is a very deep selection of other full-episode programming. Now I know where to go for the SNL episode I missed this week. I also like the Clip of the Day and the Featured Recaps.
In all, the network is just thinking harder than the others about why someone possibly would come here on their mobile phone. The site works because it performs an entertaining and useful role as a second screen, apart from -- but still in synch with --the first screen. It shows you what you missed by not tuning in and hooks you on what is coming. Even as the sun sets on the great age of the networks, the mobile site gives the sense that NBC is a place to be.
I don't know how much traffic branded network TV sites would ever get on the mobile Web. There should be a monstrous second screen opportunity here, however, to do tandem programming of the sort some cable networks like NBC-owned Bravo have done in the past (audience chats, parallel commentary, Twitter feeds, etc.). As time-shifting further fragments audiences and the TV experience, it becomes harder to manage a real-time TV-to-mobile synchronization, however. And then there is the more fundamental matter of whether TV programmers want to lure people to a second screen at all. Why would they want to distract those eyeballs from the place where the money still lives, in that first screen?
Or the networks should look at it this way. ESPN has already shown on any given Sunday that those cell phones often are open and being used as a second screen, whether TV programmers like it or not. My guess is that most of the people checking scores on ESPN Mobile this Sunday afternoon probably have their first screen tuned into another network to watch their favorite game. Who would you rather have steal your audience? You or the other guy?