As I descend to the basement to play with the router, I can't believe that in 2009, surrounded by every toy a modern man-boy could want, I still have to tinker with rabbit ear antennae to make it all work. "Is it better now?" I yell as I stretch the router closer to the stairwell and rearrange the dual antennae.
I get a flashback to the mountains of Vermont in 1977, when we anguished over pulling that lone, weak TV signal to an aging black and white set in order to watch "Saturday Night Live." Wads of tin foil blossomed from the back of the TV. The best bet was to grab the drunkest guy in the room and tell him to hold one end of your attached FM antenna. Sometime, in the middle of "Weekend Update," he would sober up enough to realize he was being used as a third rabbit ear. "Hey, Smith. What the f---?" he'd say.
We often say that mobile media in 2009 is where the Web was in 1997. When it comes to mobile video, I think it is better to look back to TV in 1954. The technologies are in flux (3G streaming, MediaFLO, local digital?). It is unclear just how users want their video in the mix, and exactly what sorts of things they want to watch on the go.
And Dad is on the roof constantly adjusting the antenna trying to get a signal. If you really want to test the limits of your 3G network, just try accessing a video asset out there in the wild. And frankly, in my experience, the MediaFLO mobile TV solution is no better. I literally have moved my phone to a nearby window and held it up over my head to grab a signal and demonstrate to a friend the "wonders" of mobile TV technology. Who is the drunk holding the antenna now?
Nielsen's recent "Three Screen Report" on video consumption across TV, Web and mobile platforms did give us a tantalizing glimpse of what that ultimate mobile TV signal will be like. Nielsen contends that mobile video viewership escalated 52.2% in the past year, to 13.4 million monthly users in Q1 2009. The big surprise here is the consumption rate among those who do embrace the platform. Time spent with mobile video among its users is three hours and 37 minutes a month, higher even that monthly Web video use (3 hours a month).
Those who are into mobile video are really into it. Is this merely a function of early adopter behavior: the first ones in are the one most likely to love the platform anyway? Perhaps, but the stat could also be a leading indicator that once users have reasonable access to mobile video experiences, they start treating it like portable TV.
One number that does skew the overall mobile video metrics is the age demographic. While 34% of the mobile video audience is in the 25-34 demo, 18% is in the much narrower 12-17 age band. And in this teen demo, usage spikes to six-and-a-half hours a month. Curiously, the monthly usage pulls back to 2:53 a month in the college age segment and then increases again to 3:37 for 25-34. The high usage among teens might indicate future growth as the next generation brings its mobile video habits into adulthood. Or these fluctuating stats across the demographics might reflect the opportunistic quality of mobile video viewing. College students watch more Web video than most because they likely have more access to it through the day and probably have less need for mobile video. Working adults may be looking for more video snacks away from their desks during the day.
I can only speculate, but until we have a firmer grasp on the routines and patterns governing mobile video use (and until consumers themselves create them), it is going to be hard to program to the platform. The forms of television didn't settle down until later in the 1950s, as the rituals and family dynamics surrounding its viewing took hold in post-war, nuclear-family, suburban America. The formats of early TV followed radio (some 15-minute segments and a lot of variety programming), until domestic situation comedy and hour-long drama (mainly pre-modern Westerns) mapped the Eisenhower zeitgeist so well.
So let's not be presumptuous enough to believe that technology alone drives the mobile video bus. Situation, ritual, historical moment all shape our viewing habits, regardless of the platform.
Hence, let's also not be too hasty in believing that video will flow seamlessly in our lives to, using Nielsen's phrase, "the best screen available." We have already seen mobile video go through at least two iterations. In the earliest days of VCast video I recall the doomed "Mobisode" projects from Fox that tried to create discrete dramas for the handset.
Now we are in the stage where repurposed Web video, both professional and user-generated, seems to have sway among programmers. By the end of the year, we will see Hulu's launch on mobile and mobile DTV projects assert the familiar TV full-episode experience onto mobile.
Will mobile video be TV by other means? I am not convinced. Personally, I would rather it behaved more like a smarter DVR, in that it should provide both on-demand access and a kind of filter and push functionality. Why would I want to channel-surf for new video content on my handset in a waiting room or between meetings? Wouldn't the video experience map against the device more accurately if the video I like from multiple sources were in queue for me when I fired up my handset?
If mobile video is "snacking," then package it as such. We don't cook snacks. We crack them open from convenient, ready-made wrappers in pre-made serving sizes. History suggests that the true formats of a new medium do not reveal themselves until the users settle into rituals of use.
But what does this lapsed professor know, anyway? I am still down in the basement holding a white prong from my router to give the girls better Wi-Fi reception.
"Wait, hold it right there. That is perfect," my fiancée yells down as I stand there holding the antenna.
"Wait a minute. What the f---?"