Sprint Ahead... To Mass Media

After losing subscribers and its CEO, Sprint has decided to take its next step forward by looking backward, to the good old days of basic cable. Launching yesterday, The SEE channel (Sprint Exclusive Entertainment) looks and feels like a well-intentioned fledgling TV network trying to be all things to the great big middle of an imagined general demographic. At this early stage of mobile video programming, splashing a broad audience from familiar buckets of music, gossip, sports, weather and fashion content is unavoidable, I suppose. But it is ironic that the most personal and targetable medium we have resembles my Cablevision of 1978.

Well, maybe late '80s cable. Last year's first iteration of Sprint's free mobile TV, Power View, reminded me of early MTV and ESPN. The same three hosts seemed to occupy every available talking head slot. I thought I was flashing back to the days when the lovely and almost-talented Martha Quinn and insufferably smiley Mark Goodman fronted every other video program. To its credit, Sprint's programming sense (and budget) have evolved with SEE. A range of sports stars, third-party online content providers, and dedicated hosts now fill the sub-channels of sports, music, time-saving tips and the inevitable promos for other Sprint services. One hostess, Rachel Perry (formerly of VH1), does work overtime, however, as the Martha Quinn of the new venture. She mixes it up from show to show by turning her hair up or down.

While other digital video programming like Blip.tv's sitcoms ("Goodnight Burbank" and "Break a Leg") and Versaly's Fast Lane aim for the niches and dare to be edgy, Sprint's SEE has to go for reach -- and so gives us serviceable blandness that covers the basic cable bases. Accuweather glosses the national forecast, Celeb.TV reviews the latest scandal without a drop of irony or wit, and the sports commentators give us "opinions" that always seem to be sharper in tone than in insight.

While there is nothing exciting or even remotely interesting about Sprint's SEE programming, it is notable in its ambitions and the free model. There is a lot of vanilla programming to drink up here, and users are getting exposed to the mobile TV experience for the price of the data plan. The company is promising updates throughout the day in its major categories. And the new player software is a lot cleaner and more attractive than the previous mobile media player. It brands the channels with visible logos and offers a text synopsis of the highlighted channel or item in the directory. Users still need to drill more than anyone would like, but the clip headlines and pop-up descriptors encourage grazing.

The supporting ad picture is mixed, as Sprint is experimenting with a number of formats here. Accuweather leads its content with a static image pitching the Web site. A five-second Geico ad slips in as a pre-roll and mid-roll in various clips. And that godforsaken leftover from Sprint's Super Bowl campaign for Pepsi, the psychedelic Pepsi Gallery spot, is still lurking about the inventory like kudzu on a lawn. I hear that Pepsi is a big company, so I am guessing it could spring for more than one or two creatives in nine months.

The most interesting ad pieces are integrated as programming. I have no idea whether the fashion sub-channel of Ford Models clips is meant to be actual product reviews or paid placements, but I guess that is the way it should be. It was news to me that lip gloss containers actually came with a headlight now so you can see where you are painting. I did learn something new. A Movies channel has a series of action shorts that turn out to be pitches for the "Fast and Furious" mobile game by iPlay. And our perky hostess Rachel (must they always be perky?) offers a free ringtone in her content roundup spot and directs users to another area of the deck.

While there is no opportunity for clicking through from a video ad, Sprint seems to be thinking about ways of incorporating direct marketing pitches in with the branding opportunities. Clearly we are at another stage of content and commerce evolution on mobile TV; you can start to see here ways that video becomes part of a mobile marketing and commerce eco-system rather than a novel tech marvel to show off to friends.

What has not evolved, and has not been answered yet, is this question: Is white-bread basic cable what we want on free mobile TV? I would think that mobile video programming would want to look to successful video podcasting brands for cues. "Wallstrip," "RocketBoom," "Diggnation," "Goodnight Burbank," and a handful of other popular downloadable shows bring us back for more with standout content ideas and personalities that connect with niche audiences. In going for reach over niche, Sprint assumes a larger audience connects better with programming that more resembles E! and the chirpy demeanor of local sports shows. Maybe they are right. I hope they won't be right for very long, however.