Commentary

Can You See Me Now?

A little known piece of media history is that actual TV programming started a good decade before the platform grabbed American audiences in the later 1940s and early 1950s. At CBS, for instance, there was a full-blown TV unit in New York, where writers and technicians actively experimented with news and entertainment formats long before anyone had a clue what audiences would want to watch on a nightly basis. Comedy acts were pulled in from vaudeville, which the film industry had effectively killed. Singers and musicians from the clubs came in to give it a try as well. No one really knew if TV would be just radio with pictures or some new animal. A limited number of TV receivers in New York were viewing these programming tests, and it wasn't until 1947 that affordable TV sets and robust programming schedules were in place to make TV the media success story of the century. Within five years it was a mass medium, but only after a decade of thought and testing.

New media no longer get this private gestation period. In an age of VC-funded projects and see-what-sticks business models, the audience is the media lab rat. The Internet spent nearly a decade thrashing about for proper formats and models, and it still isn't settled yet. But this time new platforms like streaming media, podcasting, and mobile evolve quickly and noticeably in the consumer's own hands.

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Verizon's VCast service represents a kind of mobile video prehistory. It was three years ago now that the company sent me its first VCast phone, which was sluggish, pixilated, and suffered limited programming at a steep price. At the time I compared it to old-tube TVs in the over-air days. You had to wait for it to warm up, hope for good reception, and then enjoy about three channels.

Using a new model phone, and three years later, VCast is a much more sophisticated service. Performance is considerably faster. It loads and drops into the video directory within seconds, and the handful of launch categories has now expanded into a deep trove of a dozen silos that now include a channel of popular Web video brands (Veoh, TokyoPop, Heavy.com, YouTube, etc.), an Election '08 section and even a "Marketplace" area for branded entertainment. Burger King's Freakout spots were the only occupants of this channel when I visited.

A lot of the VCast material is the same as we have been seeing for the past couple of years: standup snippets, two-minute news grabs, and highlights from other programming. The discovery issue has not gone away, either. The VCast deck is organized by content types, which then often drop into a selection of content brands, which then often drop into their own sub-categories of content types. The technology does now let you save clips by downloading and accessing them in the future, but it is clear from drilling in and out of these silos that mobile video desperately needs a more customizable interface. From the start, I am about eight clicks away from Letterman's Top Ten List. Ideally, I should be able to surface that favorite to the top of VCast, and in a perfect world it would be an icon of Dave's gap-toothed, goofy grin on my phone home screen. There are configurable alerts available that help notify you of new clips, but they cover a very limited range of content.

I think the most interesting part of VCast is in those little nooks where genuine experimentation occurs. The Sony Minisode Network is one such lab. These radically truncated versions of old TV episodes (I refuse to use the term "classic" for "Charlie's Angels") squeeze 20 and 40 minutes of programming into 5-minute chunks. Silly on the face of it, the technique actually works when applied to bad TV. Somewhere in "Fantasy Island" there really are a few minutes of pleasure, and a short glimpse of Robert Goulet and Alan Hale in swashbuckler garb offers just enough ironic glee. A full hour of it would make you want to put your eyes out. You can see the minisodes online at Myspace, as well.

I am also fascinated by the way CBS is parsing full episodes of late-night shows into their respective parts. The full-length Dave is cut into the monologue, sketches, interviews and music segments, which allows the user essentially to radically recut the previous night's lean-back experience into something else entirely. Now if I could just subscribe to one of these segments so they always float to the top, then I would have married TiVo with Web with mobile. All of this is good in theory, but I still have to drill to the 33rd item on CBS's list of choices to find the Letterman and Fergusen content. Again, as the offerings become robust and actually deserving of the monthly premium, the navigation and discovery issue becomes chronic.

One trend in experimental mobile programming, and a variant on Sony's minisode approach, boils episodic content down to key scenes. The daily soap opera highlights are fun to watch even if you haven't a clue who is sleeping with whom, just because the melodrama is dialed up so deliciously high. If a user is already familiar with a series, then pulling highlights makes sense because the viewer can provide necessary context. One very cool implementation of this reliance on familiarity is a section of film scenes from major studios. You can access memorable moments from films like "Animal House." The idea is solid, and you just can't get enough of the horse heart attack ("Holy S**t!"). But paying an extra fee per clip is out of bounds. Less successful, I think, are the two-minute show recaps of full programming. When you can't follow the storyline of a "My Name is Earl" episode, then you know something in the format is not really working.

My initial response to these experiments is that even mobile snippets require some time to set a scene and register emotion. This requires a full moment, not shards of moments to work. It strikes me as odd and interesting that drama, tension, character, narrative arc, actually have a place in a video snacking format. There really is a palette here on which to paint. And who would have thought that Alan Hale and Robert Goulet could be fun to watch?

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