Commentary

And Another Thing: I'm Still Not Watching Mobile TV

Some rants are so big they take two blog posts to handle. See yesterday's post for the warm up. Such is my experience with mobile TV. And I do mean "experience." I literally have had access to dedicated mobile video services and live mobile TV from the days they were first offered. For months I kept with me the first Verizon VCast 3G phones back when they had an antenna. I did the same with the first iterations of Sprint TV on 3G (again VOD) and the Qualcomm FloTV units from Verizon and AT&T. I have even had review laptops with built-in TV tuners and HDTV dongles to pull in hi-res over-air transmissions. While it is true of all technologies, mobile media especially is reliant on consumers making habitual use of a platform. Even I thought the notion of having live or on-demand TV in my pocket or my backpack was cool as all hell. I pushed every new handset and device on my daughter and girlfriend to see if they shared my enthusiasm.

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"Okay, when are you going to use it?" my daughter asked. It was good for her in the passenger seat ("Ooh, look SpongeBob," she squealed) but when exactly would I be away from a TV or PC monitor long enough to need an in-between screen to fill the void?" Even TV-enabled laptops most often were used at home, in hotel rooms with better TV screens available, etc.

In practice, my daughter's quip proved dead on. In years of carrying mobile TV of all sorts, I usually forgot I had it. And while some of the technologies like FloTV were impressive in the near instant-on snappiness, there just weren't a lot of instances where it was practical to turn on a portable TV. Waiting room? Really? Unless you are packing headphones, you are sharing your TV tastes with the people around you. On the commute? Well, maybe - again if you come prepared not to share and if your provider really can hold a fat bandwidth on a moving train or bus. Lunch back at the office seems like a best case scenario during the day for mobile TV. It is not surprising that mobile video ad networks like Rhythm New Media find that much of mobile video consumption often happens during prime time - likely at home.

As comments on yesterday's rant (or half-rant) pointed out, the new mobile TV consortium of broadcasters likely has its sights set beyond smart phones and onto multiple portable devices like tablets and in-car devices. I agree, but I don't see that the going is any smoother on these devices either. First, the consortium will have to pursue these other devices because for obvious business reasons the handset manufacturers will be slow to adopt, even though they represent the greatest market penetration. Even on tablets, laptops and in-car we are still facing usage scenarios that are much more incremental, fragmented and haphazard than the 70-year tradition of lean-back TV. Applying the same content and business model of the last century to an on demand and mobilized world of content use makes great sense for media moguls and advertisers. For consumers? Time shifting has already demonstrated that the old models of broadcasting are permanently changed. Mobility accelerates all of that in ways we can't yet anticipate.

And then there is the issue of the video programming itself. VOD allows the user to pick and choose short clips at will, and that seems to be the form that has some legs now on any mobile platform. I myself have watched full episodes of SNL and substantial pieces of Netflix films on my iPhone.

But how well does a live TV stream map against the video snacking model most mobile content providers assume is the use case for this platform? The mobile TV consortium that announced yesterday it would enable live broadcasting to mobile devices in select markets next year suggests that good old TV-as-we-know-it should be available everywhere in its basic form. But if I have a few minutes to kill and want to fire up the smart phone to catch up on the latest headlines, what are the chances that I actually will drop into exactly that in a live stream? The Weather Channel is the only TV content provider that is programmed for drive-by viewing. Local weather "on the eights" assures the channel surfer they can get the content they most want on a tight rotation that makes sense for the use case. But in most other cases, however, I could hit headline news during a human interest story on a Turkey bowling festival in DeMoines or worse a lengthy ad pod. Meanwhile the dentist is ready to see me now. Time to put away the phone. Even on larger screen devices, mobility still means opportunistic and relatively unpredictable grabbing of media. The last century's model of TV programming (and even radio programming) were grounded in social rituals in day parts followed by mass audiences. Mobility in any form (phone or tablet) is personalization brought to its extreme. It is anathema to mass media - to broadcasting as we have known it for a century.

Frankly the inherent and obvious limitations of serving a raw TV feed to mobile handsets or screens occurred to the likes of FloTV and MobiTV years ago, and they adjusted their programming accordingly. Many of these early in providers started experimenting with truncated programming from the prime time schedule that was aimed at ten and twenty minute usage spans. Mobile platforms require content shaped to mobile use cases, mobile attention spans, mobile settings. I am not sure what precisely this Mobile TV consortium of broadcasters really has in mind content-wise. But if they think they will get away with simply redirecting their broadcast to a new generation of devices that carry with them very different use cases, then my guess is we will discover quickly whether any of us really do want 'TV Everywhere.'

5 comments about "And Another Thing: I'm Still Not Watching Mobile TV ".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, November 23, 2010 at 8:10 p.m.

    Not carrying earbuds. Really? That's a problem? That's the Achilles Heel?

    Then why do millions love their iPod? Maybe most people wouldn't see earbuds/headphones such a terrible inconvenience.

    Maybe your other complaints hold water. But lacking earphones? Lame.

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, November 23, 2010 at 11:46 p.m.

    Hi Douglas. I don't agree. iPods generally require earbuds, or at least most people would not want to listen to their music over an external speaker on MP3 players. You leave the house with an iPod and earbuds as a matter of course. I don't find this to be the case with a cell phone or even an iPad.

  3. Lynne Tierney from Nightly Business Report, November 24, 2010 at 9:27 a.m.

    Let's look away from TV as entertainment...can't you see students carrying their tablets instead of books and teachers assigning them to tune in to a particular program for a class discussion? I don't see live TV having much role, but it does push the technology forward. If the consortium is successful, portable video will become an expected part of daily life.

  4. Tracy Hill from Thillgroup, November 24, 2010 at 9:56 a.m.

    Using HTV Evo, Slingbox for Android and a wireless bluetooth headset (Plantronics Voyager 855), which is required for driving here in CA anyway so I always have it with me. Works great! If I'm doing my grocery shopping, I usually have my bluetooth headset in listening to NPR or some music. If there is a long line, I might turn on ESPN to watch a bit of Monday Night Football. Can't tell you the number of times that it's come in handy for watching breaking news. Ever been stuck in a long UPS line, had a flight delayed at the airport, etc? Over both 3G and 4G the picture quality is very good, sounds great (in stereo or mono), and it's all simple as pie to turn on and off. Fits in very well with the rest of the entertainment options on my phone. Mobile TV in some form will definitely be the wave of the future as mobile phones become our primary information, communications, and entertainment devices.

  5. Allen Mostow from SynergySystems - TVInCars LLC - Int'l Mgt Consultants, November 25, 2010 at 2:17 a.m.

    The plethora of rights issues, elusive business models, and competing interests haven't stopped broadcasters from trying to train this 'tail that could wag their dogs' to sustainable profitability. I still maintain that targeting motorists (drivers) and facilitating free local OTA TV station audio in real-time will encourage TV-avids to "Stay Tuned ALL Day, Both @ Home & Away".
    Coming soon (???) to a motor vehicle near you. www.HearTVInCars.com

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