Nice-to-See Mobile TV

I admit that I have not been a great cheerleader for mobile video. This strikes even me as strange. I was one of those mediaholic geek kids back in the day of three-network TV who had the entire prime-time grid memorized. "What's on tonight?" my parents would ask me at the dinner table. Like a scary proto-Internet kitchen appliance, I could reel off the schedule -- filtered, of course, to favor "Batman" and "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." My parents had no idea that "Petticoat Junction" and "Marcus Welby" even made it past their first season. I owned that TV.

Oddly enough, I have not embraced the first instances of mobile video and TV I have seen. I still find Verizon's VCast an inconvenient interface that makes me wait too long to get to a poorly organized hodgepodge of clips. The live feeds from MobiTV and Sprint TV's loops of video content never justified the cost to me, because I generally forgot they were there. As a result, I never really understood how the structure of live TV fit the circumstances of a mobile handset. If I am consulting my phone for content on the go, I am not interested in tuning into MSNBC or Fox during the Fidelity or L'Oreal commercials. MobiTV just announced 2 million subscribers across its services, so I guess others (or at least a pocket of early adopters) disagree.

In recent weeks, however, I am finding mobile video content that is good enough, sometime free enough, to merit attention. One quiet entrant in the race towards must-see mobile TV is Weathernews' LiveLocal service. This $4.99 a month application works because video is simply one piece of an excellent design that brings me all the local weather news I need in four screens. My default location pops up with an attractive image of the local weather cam, and I can flip through radar, forecast, alerts, and weather details in four clicks. But the best part of this service is that it also aggregates news stories from my local news stations. I get all the little newsy snippets from the morning, noon and evening telecasts, often within an hour of them airing. What makes this video work where so many others fail for me? Immediacy and relevance. The content is laser-targeted to my on-the-ground needs. There are too few applications right now that give us the local must-have info a mobile user needs in the car and on the street. There is a good reason why MapQuest is the most popular mobile app by a longshot. And LiveLocal has immediacy and on-demand choice. This information is very close to the surface of the deck, so I don't have to drill through menus and folders of the high-eyebrowed Katie Couric and bad Leno jokes to get what I want.

I am also liking the CBS News alerts system, which uses SMS to push me to WAP links for breaking news. In most cases I get a link to a text story, and CBS is good about limiting the flow to the two or three most important items a day. The video links come even more judiciously, and they generally come when a clip really does tell the story better than text. Unlike a bottomless pit of clips or a feed of live programming, this takes a minimalist approach that seems to acknowledge how a large portion of the audience only wants mobile video on a must-have basis. It doesn't try to oversell the platform. I suspect that the majority of mobile users will need to convince themselves of why they want or need mobile video, and getting small pieces of the experience pushed to us occasionally is one way we figure out how video fits into our daily phone habits.

Finally, there are the two free and ad-supported Sprint services, Power View and FastLane. I want to discuss the programming and ad models behind these two at greater length in another column. For now, what is important about both is that I remember to check in with them. Since the launches of VCast and SprintTV and MobiTV, all of which I started testing eons ago, the biggest problem is that, as with so many mobile applications, I just forgot I had them. This is no small issue on a deck that requires so much drilling across so many buckets just to find what you really want. In the case of the entertainment-oriented Power View and the young male programming of FastLane, it is the well-targeted nature of the content that keeps them top-of-mind. The services refresh the video frequently enough to make me wonder what they've got on tap if I have a few extra minutes after consulting messages on my deck. I don't have to drill too much to find clips worth watching because I am pretty much pre-qualified to appreciate most of the offerings.

If my own mobile TV experience is any indication of normal behavior (no wisecracks, Mom... Dad... Sis) then mobile video providers might want to tweak their current appeals. Immediacy, convenience (i.e. push mechanisms and personalized interfaces) and sheer, simple relevance will make me care that I even have video on my handset. I am not sure that "live" sells this platform. I am not even so sure that the phone's ability to "mobilize" cable TV brands sells this platform. I don't think quantity sells this platform. I am not impressed by all the deals Verizon Wireless has been cutting with big media to pile more content into VCast. I think the interface is unwieldy to begin with. I don't need more choices. I need my choices.

I need something like what my parents had -- a precocious geek at the dinner table who knew everyone's taste and filtered the grid for them.

And, Mom, 40 years later I am ready to 'fess up. I believe that that darling "Mary Tyler Moore Show" really did make it to a second season.

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