The Mobile Mirage

The 2007 introduction of the iPhone and other devices with miniature video screens set off one of those periodic mob frenzies that hasn’t quite abated yet.  With the growing popularity of these devices, media companies found that if they wanted to keep reporters and financial analysts off their backs, they had to articulate some kind of “mobile strategy.” Given what had happened to other content providers – especially music and publishing – the creation of these strategies became a reassuring talking point for earnings calls and major company profiles.

But once again, even with all this wheel-spinning on mobile strategies, TV has proven to be different from the other content businesses.  Smartphones and other digital media may have brought the magazine business to its knees, forced the music business to change its business model and transformed book publishing, but it barely made a dent in TV viewing.  In fact, in the years since the introduction of smartphones, the viewing of traditional TV has actually risen.



For all the anxiety about mobile, here are the facts, according to Nielsen’s Cross-Platform Report: during the course of a week, the average adult watches 37 hours of TV, an hour and a half of Internet video and NINE MINUTES of video on a smartphone.  This mobile number would undoubtedly be higher if video viewing on tablets were added in, but any way you look at it, traditional TV dwarfs mobile viewing.

This should not be a surprise.  TV is the ultimate “lean back” experience.  You want to relax when you watch TV, but there’s nothing particularly relaxing about hunching over the  smartphone you’re cradling in your lap.  You need to be hyper-engaged to commit to mobile viewing: maybe it’s a sporting event you really care about, a favorite TV show you missed or a super-important news event.  But to sit there night after night and watch “Jeopardy,” “Top Chef” or an “Everybody Loves Raymond” rerun?  I don’t think so.

Here’s the thing about the mobile revolution: It has significantly degraded the quality of every medium it’s touched.  The ultimate goal of recorded music used to be the purest possible representation of the artists’ work; now most people listen to music through cheap ear buds or on tinny speakers. News used to be delivered through thoughtful, carefully reported stories; now it’s chopped into bits and bytes that can be quickly scrolled through on a tiny screen.  Magazine reading used to be a languid, idea-absorbing experience; now it’s swipe, swipe, swipe, as little blocks of type fly by.

The TV experience is similarly cheapened by watching it on a tiny screen.  What’s the point of creating the immersive video experience that HBO provides with “Game of Thrones” or “True Detective” if you literally can’t see all the details on the screen?

Fortunately for the media companies, people seem to prefer to watch TV the old-fashioned way, on a bigger TV monitor. Consequently it appears that mobile TV viewing is actually additive to traditional TV viewing: If a viewer wants to watch TVm he or she will probably choose the biggest screen possible, resorting to a smartphone only if there’s no other option.

At least the TV industry better hope that’s the way it turns out, because if TV viewing does begin to migrate to the tiny screen, that will be really bad news for content producers.  Two-thirds of spending on mobile advertising is claimed by Google and Facebook, with the rest of the Internet fighting over the scraps.  Rates for a brand ad on a mobile TV show are a fraction of what they are on a prime-time show.  And there have to be fewer of them, because mobile viewers won’t stand for a two-and-a-half-minute commercial pod; a 30-second ad that seems perfectly fine on TV is interminable on my Droid.       

Rates are lower because consumer engagement for those tiny little brand ads is lower too.  In fact, although I can’t prove it yet by scientific research, it’s possible that a video ad on a mobile platform might end up causing a brand more harm than good.  Based on a small sample of one (i.e., myself), I think that consumers resent mobile ads more than they do TV ads.  Maybe it’s because mobile ads are so new, or maybe it’s because so many of them are just repurposed TV ads, but they seem more intrusive and annoying than the ads that appear on TV.

Bottom line: I think we can probably relax about mobile video.  The smartphone is turning out to be one of those technologies – like DVRs and the Internet – that was going to change the very nature of television; but it turns out that it’s actually a complement to the seven-decade-old habit of watching video on a stationary television screen. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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