Commentary

Mobile TV: Ahead To The Past

It's a good thing that the underlying technology of MediaFLO mobile TV is so good, because snappy channel switching is essential to enduring a full-bore broadcast TV schedule on a handheld. I tried it the other night. Never again.

Using Verizon's VCast system, I decided to dial up an evening of prime time via my phone. The ladies of the house were away, which is a good thing, because the scene in my living room had mad media scientist written all over it. Here I was in my big comfy chair, a sub-two-inch display in hand, with the 60-inch HDTV screen running the same station concurrently in background. And then there was the laptop, where I consulted TVGuide.com to compare the mobile TV and standard TV schedule grids. All I lacked was Doc's flux capacitor. My cat was giving me double-takes, and he is pretty unflappable.

But here is what this mad scientist found.

By my count, Verizon VCast TV has a baker's dozen of choices (CNBC, Fox News Channel, Tr3s [Spanish language], ESPN, ESPNr, FUEL, CBS, FOX, NBC, MSNBC, Comedy Central, MTV, and Nick). That is not enough. Basic cable circa 1979 does not blend well with a personal device. You might as well put a sewing machine engine in Doc's DeLorean. Once "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" were done, there wasn't anything to watch.

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And yet the technology, both in broadcast and display, is pretty amazing. While I prefer the AT&T grid implementation to Verizon's (more on that another time), the resolution and responsiveness of the system are superb. As I've already discovered on iPods and the iPhone, resolution trumps sheer display size. A sharp and well-resolved image, even on a 2-inch LCD, is surprisingly watchable. Unless of course, the show is "CSI," where quick edits, whooshing camera angles and a lot of dim sets make for a tough haul. But the point is, even for longer stretches, scale is less the issue than content. Technically, this can work, and the speed really matters. From the home screen, Verizon's TV pops on very quickly (faster than my HDTV) and thus encourages opportunity viewing.

Channel switching is as snappy as a digital TV, and this is quite necessary. It was very difficult for me to lean back with this device and settle into a long-form program. A full episode of "CSI" is just not tenable, but that is not to say that full-length programs are non-starters here. Linear and live TV on handhelds can be mind-numbing, but I don't want to be too bleak. Comedy Central shows, from "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" to much of the standup material, are easy to drop into because their basic structure is short-form within long-form. Similarly, the best content visually and structurally for mobile TV is a Nick toon show. While CBS, MSNBC, NBC, and many of the other supposedly mobilized networks ran much of the prime time straight to Verizon VCast TV, Nick was smart enough to stick with cartoons through prime time, while the sit-coms ran on TV. A choice between George Lopez and "Fairly Odd Parents" is no choice at all, in my mind. But the short-episode format of the cartoon segments blended with the graphics made for perfect linear mobile TV. Most of the crappy Nicktoons (apologies to my daughter, who is a fan) use minimal movement, medium shots, and broad swathes of color. Hanna-Barbera TV toons would play well here, but I am not asking for the return of "Magilla Gorilla." My generation had our crap, too.

No, mobile TV doesn't need Huckleberry Hound, but it could use more of the programming sensibility of news radio or The Weather Channel. I am fairly astonished that there isn't a dedicated news or lifestyle or sports channel on Mobile TV that doesn't work in 10-minute cycles. Don't we get local weather "on the 8s" on TV? Don't most AM news radio stations understand that people are dropping into their linear programming randomly? No one gets in their car on the hour or half hour to start listening to a program -- that's why we get headlines every five or ten minutes, or now even get headline tickers on cable TV.

Just about every other medium already understands that we are drive-by audiences. Some element of the content has to accommodate the haphazard catch-as-catch-can routine. Actually, out-of-home video networks like check-out TV comes closer to the structures we need here than the classic TV grid.

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