Commentary

Ooh, Look! SpongeBob

Along with my hairline and stamina, I left behind the perennial question "How much TV do we really need?" a long time ago. As the morning shows get piped onto digital billboards in Times Square and Food Network snippets keep me from reading the tabloids on checkout lines (what's up with Britney, anyway?), it is apparent now that there never is, never will be, enough TV. It may fragment. It may get time-shifted. It may even get parsed into segments we mash up on our own. But it is not going away. As longtime industry analyst Paul Kagan told me recently, "We're talking about a medium that is a legal narcotic, a habit-forming thing."

And so I have learned to stay away from my natural and intuitive response to mobile TV, which is who needs it? America's driving culture does not provide the same commute-time opportunity as Asia and Europe, where we have seen mobile broadcast TV get some traction. And we are a nation of ubiquitous screens already. With Internet, digital out-of-home, and several TVs in a home, what hole still needs to be filled here? The question is naïve, I now understand.

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Before handing over my daughter Verizon's VCast Mobile TV for a check-up, I asked her if she would like to have its real-time broadcasts of the familiar TV grid on her phone. Her first response was that it would interfere with her texting, which is her main use for the phone. "I guess I would watch it if I were really bored," she concedes. Portable music is her mobile entertainment, anyway. At the time, she had her iPod hooked into the car stereo to show off the latest heavy-metal atrocity she was enjoying. I know my media and culture theory too well to associate my child's musical tastes with her character, so it is not a big concern to me that my teen girl listens to tracks that sound like a serial killer's heart attack.

"Ooh, look! SpongeBob" she says as she rifles through the eight or so channels of video streaming onto the VCast Mobile TV. So long as my teenager vacillates between Megadeath and Hello Kitty, we are good. And truth be told, I am a little more suspicious of SpongeBob's creepy ironic appeal than I am of screaming metal psychos.

Which also makes the point that -- McLuhan be damned -- the message is the message. Content will drive mobile TV if it takes off at all. For now, that content is slim. Verizon's version of the Qualcom MediaFLO technology carries ESPN, NBC, NBC News, MTV, CBS, Comedy Central, Nick, and Fox. The rumored MediaFLO service from AT&T may have a couple more channels thrown in, but clearly we are back in the TV choices of the '60s for now.

But the technology is spectacular, and it belies a few myths of handset video. First, resolution is everything. Sharp, clean video with high framerates becomes watchable even on tiny screens. The Motorola handset on which I am testing this is only a hair larger than most modern phones, but the crispness of the rendering seems to compensate for the size. There is still the issue of framing and scale. While CBS, NBC and Fox seem to be contouring some of the ad space to the mobile environment, this is pretty much TV programming on a small screen. Lower-third crawls and text are almost impossible to see. Dimly lit action scenes can get confusing very quickly on a small LCD. Composition in some news stories and on prime-time drama and action shows are less compelling than the visual conventions of stand-up, sit-com, and talking-head programming.

The most interesting part of VCast Mobile TV is the scheduling. The programming day is a blend of the current standard TV schedule (morning news shows, prime-time shows at night) and catch-up programming. During the afternoon you can get the soaps and last night's late night shows and a smattering of items from the network's niche cable outlets as well. The grid is a weird mélange of prime-time, daytime and late-night, and it is impossible to know what kind of programming to broadcast to a mobile audience. Channel surfing, by the way, is quite good. So even though the choices are slim, the living room feel is still there.

But there is the rub in all of this. Does the brilliant technology that transports a lean-back experience to a phone really match the use cases? One can think of a likely commuting situation for broadcast TV during a commute. You can see the morning news shows you are missing or the Top Ten list you missed last night. And then there is the lunchtime break, although it is likely a connected PC screen is a better alternative now. But do we want to snack on real-time programming we drop into? The technology, good as it is here, still doesn't resolve the question many of us posed three years ago for mobile video: Does the clipcasting VOD format fit this platform better than streaming broadcast? Does a push-oriented broadcast approach fit a highly personalized medium that in all other respects is more of a pull mechanism?

I am not convinced one way or the other on this. My guess is that we won't find out about the viability of mobile TV until ad support lowers the price barrier considerably, however. Right now a consumer has to buy a special phone to get this service, which means they must buy into the concept before really having tried it on a regular basis. The service itself is priced at $15 and $25 a month, according to the bundle. We will need to remove the price and technology friction before we even get to the consumer skepticism.

TV on my phone? I don't need that.

Ooh, look! Steven Colbert.

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