Going Mobile For TV Content? Going For Free--And Later

Mobile ESPN was a rare misstep for the Walt Disney's powerful ESPN brand. Now ESPN needs to step it up in areas it knows better--selling advertising.

Sucked into the wireless world that has been touted as the holy grail of content, ESPN bought into the industry fever, assuming its crazy and loyal sports fans would pay anything to get closer to ESPN and its sports properties.  Spending $150 million or more on the effort, ESPN pulled in a fraction of subscribers it needed, some 30,000 versus the 3 million or so of its intended goal. That's a spectacular failure.

Costing, at a minimum, a pricey $40 a month--where most wireless services were giving away score information for much, much less or even free-- ESPN, like a highly touted NFL rookie, had big dollars in its eyes. 



Business analysts have said Mobile ESPN could really only expect a core audience of gamblers and fantasy league players to buy the service. Beyond that, even for the most earnest fans, having detailed sports information while at dinner or on the road wasn't that important. They could wait to get to a radio or TV.  

That said, in the future, we might see a lot of this rich sports content on mobile phones--but more as a palette of a number of new high-edged entertainment services, and for a fraction of the cost --perhaps pennies.

Now, instead of selling its own product, its own branded mobile phone, ESPN will license its content to existing wireless companies, offering consumers pieces or the entire suite of Mobile ESPN content.

Perhaps mobile phone users want what they do as video users--free content.

Initial digital TV efforts--through iTunes or other services--had users paying either $1.99 or 99 cents per showing of a TV show. But now major media companies are hearing the word: ad-supported content is good.  CBS switched from 99 cents an episode for its Comcast deal to a free, fully-ad supported model. ABC has launched its major digital programming effort for its prime-time shows on recently--free and ad-supported.

Everybody assumes wireless devices will run the world in five years. Entertainment companies all say they want to give consumers what they want, when they want. That seems to suggest some immediacy.  But now, for content executives, that "when" may be later then they think.

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