CTIA: But Where's My Thomas Pynchon Ringback?

Expectations are always a bit low for the "smaller" CTIA conference held in the fall, and last week's gathering in Los Angeles did not disappoint. Few new and interesting products emerged from vendors, and if anything I detected a dialing back on the hype surrounding some of last year's "next big things."

Even as the buzzwords "mobile community," "mobile search," and "mobile TV" flowed inevitably from pitchmen's lips, most of the corporate barkers readily admitted that we're not even close to understanding what shape these genres will take on handsets and how consumers will embrace them. There was a refreshing modesty to it all. How nice to hear key industry executives in keynote panels admit that users traditionally take new technologies in unanticipated directions. Even if a century of media and technology history didn't make this overdue insight obvious, mobile's own recent evolution does. Two of the crappiest, low-res media experiences on God's green earth, SMS messaging and ringtones, came out of nowhere to generate billions in wireless profits, while mobile operators dreamt of selling us WAP and mobile video. While it was excruciating to cover such a snoozefest (you should have heard the whining in the media center!), I read into the subdued tone of CTIA a healthy sign. The industry is waiting for consumers to catch up to the 3G rollouts and new product lines and offer a few cues about what they want to do with the technology.

The embrace of mobile advertising at the show was also a part of this new humility. The mobile data project, especially in the U.S., needs the distribution that marketing partners bring to the table and it needs that revenue to fund ambitious development. Not surprisingly, Sprint led the way by announcing it would start running advertising on its WAP deck in October using enPocket's technology. A bit more surprising was Sprint launching its own media property, a self-produced video channel into which it will sell video ads. In just the first few days of Sprint Power View, it looks like an acceptable collection of entertainment news clips with the inevitably perky, insipid hostess ("Carrie") and slavish focus on Sprint's media partnerships (NFL and NASCAR). Sprint becoming a "media company?" Okay -- if making a tepid, "Access Hollywood" knock-off qualifies these days as being a media company.

Irony is the last refuge of the bored, and so Peter Chernin's keynote address was more entertaining for me than the News Corp.'s COO intended. During a week of genuine industry humility, here comes big bad mass media, strutting its popularity and power even as the old mediasphere fragments into so many shards. Sounding a bit like a Fall TV Season promo from yesteryear, Chernin announced that News Corp. intended to go mobile in a big way. It took controlling interest in Verisign's off-portal mobile content network, Jamba, and promised aggressive development of mobile properties. Wireless could prove to be a bigger platform for his goods than the Internet or TV, he crowed. Everyone wants "The Simpsons" on their phones, they just don't know it until we help them realize it, he said in effect. Big media touting its old line: we are good at making people want us. Well, good luck with that.

Don't get me wrong. I bow to "The Simpsons." It was among the last of the great mass TV phenomena. More remarkably, even as Groening, Brooks and co. planted memes and new words into the general cultural terrain, they also presciently drilled the most obscure niches. For pompous poseurs like myself, there was no greater moment in recent TV history than reclusive Gravity's Rainbow author Thomas Pynchon voicing his own character in an episode a couple of years back.

But let's face it, The Simpsons is a decade-old franchise that hasn't contributed so much as a new "Kawabunga" to us in many years. I am reminded of early TV, when declining stars and B-listers looked for a second career and seemed to give the nascent medium an imprimatur of quality. More to the point, Chernin seemed to be pushing a deteriorating broadcast mass media sensibility at a platform that should be about pull, personalization, peer-to-peer communications and niche markets. We'll cross-market the crap out of this property, and those billions of mobile phone owners will love us; that is what I got out of his bluster.

Maybe we will love the mobile Simpsons, but not if we get "Don't Have a Cow, Man" voicetones and more two-minute "mobisodes" from a waning property. In my dreams, I would have liked Chernin, or any media mogul, to walk into a CTIA and adopt more of mobile's newfound humility. Tell us honestly that you don't really know where this audience of media users is headed, but that you are the guys who are ready to take media to the next level of its evolution. You know that audiences are fragmenting into finer taste niches, becoming more demanding, and less interested in having mass media shoved down their throats. Tell me you are tracking these fragmenting audiences as they move onto personalized devices and that the phone is a technology that seems to embody these broader cultural shifts. Tell me you will try to discover and match these evolving tastes and usage patterns with personalized media experiences.

In my dreams, a Peter Chernin points to me in the audience and says, "Steve Smith, you pretentious, over-aged English major, we have your Thomas Pynchon ringback tone right here." (I guess it would go something like "I am not now nor will I ever be answering this phone"). "We know that you want it and the formats you prefer. We know where to market it to you so you can discover and choose this ringback effortlessly. We know how to sell it to you at a fair price and distribute it to any phone you use in a seamless way. Because [I am still dreaming here] that is what media companies do in an age of fragmented media and personalized devices."

That is when you will hear me screaming across the sky, "Old media gets it. Kawabunga!"