In Search Of 1947

This has been a summer of supposed tipping points in mobile media. Last week's Barack Obama VP text message amounted to one of the largest and most important single SMS drops in mobile marketing history. Nielsen estimated that 2.9 million people received the 26-word announcement about the Joe Biden veep pick.

But this also was a summer of massive multi-screen Olympics coverage. AT&T nabbed exclusive rights to live video on its mobile TV service, again in the hopes of demonstrating the value of portable video. Huge mobile sites from and Yahoo also tried to make a compelling case for mobilized media to a U.S. audience that continues to lurch towards embracing the third screen as a content platform. Finally, the arrival of the Apple App Store this summer, with its nicely arrayed shelves of easily downloadable iPhone programs, games and creatively useless curios, was supposed to be another "aha" moment for consumers. This is what mobile is all about, we imagine users understanding at long last. When circumstance or a unique event finally get them to pull up that mobile browser, or to grasp the value of text alerts, or to realize their handsets actually can do video, then the great mass audience finally will get it.



This search for that big public moment demonstrating the value of an emerging medium is an attempt to relive media history. Legend has it that in 1913, the premiere of D.W. Griffith's dubious "Birth of a Nation" epic helped sell the nascent movie medium to the middle class. According to TV lore, the 1947 World Series had the same effect on set sales in the U.S. Many believe that AOL's streaming of the 2005 Live 8 charity concerts was a tipping point for broadband.

In fact, there are no tipping point moments in media history, and marketers who pursue them misunderstand how new technologies really do penetrate a culture. By 1913, film was over a decade old and had been creeping towards middle class acceptance since 1911. Its aesthetics and mode of reception followed the models of a new mass society. TV exploded mainly because the technology embodied deeper changes in American society, the move to suburbia and nuclear families. Decades hence we will look back upon the Web and mobile "revolutions" in a similar way, I suspect. The technologies will seem less critical than the social and cultural shifts that made the gadgets so perfect for new cultural contexts.

When I look at something like multi-screen Olympics coverage, I don't see a tipping point for the Web or for mobile. I see all the ways in which digital media still tries to find its form.

For instance, I monitored three of the main channels of NBC's Olympics programming on mobile: AT&T's dedicated mobile TV channel, Verizon VCast's VOD clips, and the mobile site. None was fully satisfying because I found myself wanting to have access to all three at various times. While I found the linear programming on AT&T's mobile TV deck tedious most of the time, I recognized it could be a great resource for the truly addicted Olympics fan. In most cases the feeds throughout the day were just not contoured well enough for mobile consumption. They felt mostly like, well, feeds. Within the mobile context I needed more summation and other material that better recognized I was dropping in for 10 minutes at a time.

Ironically, the best mobile TV programming involved tapping into the prime-time nighttime feed, because that package was already shaped for limited attention spans. While I appreciated the power of having a mobile TV channel dedicated to a single flow of branded content, I found myself looking to the WAP site for the overview I craved.

I don't envy NBC's challenge in creating its mobile site. Apparently the strategy across all platforms involved sheer tonnage. Company strategists wanted to demonstrate their mastery of the event and throw as much diverse media as they could at us. And so the mobile front page of's mobile iteration was a long scroll of links to individual sports. The material often updated at such a pace that just finding a recent story took some drilling. As with the massive, video-heavy Web site, I enjoyed the principle of having access to so many clips on a handheld more than I actually used them. NBC frustrated us with its selectivity over what great moments ended up going digital and when, but that was less obtrusive than the mass of material that impeded my need for a drive-by snapshot. For that, Yahoo's Olympics site of top news and slideshows ended up being more effective. I gather from the early Web traffic returns, something similar was happening online. Many people preferred Yahoo's quick, stripped-down view of things to NBC's uneven approach: more-is-more-until-we-say-less-is-more-for-us.

While the VCast VOD folder of Olympics clips suffered some of the same coverage limitations as other aspects of the NBC digital strategy, I have to say I ended up going there most often to get the excitement of the events in a more user-controlled way. The sports-specific libraries soon became overstuffed with content, but clear labeling and mobile-friendly production values simply made them more usable than the video I had to drill for online and on WAP.

Ultimately, as a consumer, I came out of the mobile Olympics experience wishing for a mash-up of some kind. The linear programming vs. clip-casting debate over the proper form of mobile video still goes on in my mind, though I am tipping more to VOD as I use both. Technology is less the driver than culture, and time-shifted, consumer-controlled on-demand usage is the underlying cultural shift that technology and its marketing must follow. And in this respect the pieces of a mobile media future are not all here yet. We need better linkage among the types of mobile media so users can choose their own experience on the fly. Each of the three types of mobile Olympics content lived in silos that did not allow me, the user, to shift modes according to my needs: linear, VOD, text, drive-by. The Olympics was not a tipping point but another lesson. "On-demand" is a powerful media shift that has to be imagined broadly. We don't just video, audio, text and images. We demand access to a range of media experiences for different contexts and moods.

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