Commentary

What's On Tonight?

This whirlwind tour of mobile video comes to an end for now with the granddaddy (in mobile years) of the format, MobiTV.

Well, let me qualify. A "whirlwind tour" encompasses my basement office, living room lounger and Borders, where I tested most of these services. For me, that's getting out. My fiancée likes to remind me, "You have the skin color of someone who has been held hostage for a number of years." I think that is the pallor one gets from over-exposure to two-inch LCDs...or that I am a hermit. At any rate, alabaster skin may be the price I pay for having watched more mobile video than just about anyone on the planet in the last few weeks.

I thought it was about time to hear from one of its veteran providers. MobiTV is marketed variously under its own brand on some networks like AT&T, and as the white label provider on others, notably Sprint TV. According to Jay Hinman, director of carrier marketing, the service works with 20 carriers, and now boasts over 4 million subscribers.

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Several models seem to be working at once. At heart, MobiTV always was a $9.99/month fee-based service, which remains in place on some decks. In other cases, as with Sprint, it mixes some premium packages and channels in with bundled free Sprint TV channels. Having the service preloaded on handsets and with a range of bundled channels has been a key to growth.

While I may not be a great fan of linear feeds from the networks, "we love the live simulcast model," says Hinman. "It gets people excited." Live news and sports events help the carriers drive interest. For instance, last night's presidential debate ran across several MobiTV network partners, giving carrier partners the opportunity to launch tune-in promotions around it. Hinman says that such special events can produce mobile audiences that are many multiples higher than normal.

Curiously, and for all of mobile's reputation as an anytime out-of-home medium, the peak MobiTV viewing time is after work, during the 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. block. Back in the day when I started covering mobile video, we wondered if the U.S. market lacked viewing opportunity. A car-driving culture doesn't offer the same window for video consumption as commuter cultures in Asia and parts of Europe, where mass transit flourishes.

We still don't know very well where and under what circumstances most users experience mobile video during prime time in the U.S. Perhaps they are thrill-seekers who keep handsets propped in the dashboard coffee cup holder -- or they use the device as a second screen in their living rooms.

At any rate, office hours do not seem to have panned out as a critical day part for the platform. This seems to rob mobile video of any special claim to a day part when people aren't near or headed towards a TV screen. Would mobile video advertising be just another screen for hitting users sometime, anytime -- or would it fill a specific hole in marketing's video coverage? MobiTV itself does reserve for sale the local avail spots on its simulcast feeds, and Hinman says that part of the business is growing as some brands experiment with it.

Discoverability remains in my mind the biggest hurdle for mobile video generally. On a handset, more often is less. More content choices only clutter the environment and make users blanch at the prospect of drilling to what they want.

More customized video feeds may make things more manageable, but ultimately no platform cries out for a personalized push mechanism than mobile video. I should be able to shave down my mobile video interface to the providers I want. This should look more like my podcast library in iTunes than my set top digital cable grid.

Hinman says that MobiTV is experimenting with a new model that deploys more personalization within a tighter content category. Its Mobi4Biz app launches for BlackBerry next month let you create a portfolio watch list of stocks, and then pull from its available streams business news videos that contain mention of the stock. A stock ticker will run in the app, and the user can opt into live TV streams or the relevant clips. Surely a model like this could also work with a celebrity news video app or fantasy sports.

I dig the personalization part of this model, but I am even more intrigued by the smaller piece of this, the ongoing stock ticker. I wonder if mobile video/TV needs to thing outside of its own video box a little more and think about how it combines best with other types of mobile data to offer a more comprehensive experience. This goes back to the question I asked in my last column: So we want video for video's sake or for information's sake? Do we really hunt out a video experience, per se, on a handset?

I find the blended media model in the AP News Network iPhone application one interesting model. Most sections of the application give me direct access to the day's text news, image galleries or video associated with sports, celebs, politics, etc. I am coming to absorb a specific type of information, but I don't know yet the best medium for it. Once there, I can decide if a clip, an image or a text story is the best vehicle. All due respect to Marshall McLuhan, but in a consumer-driven multi-mediasphere, the old buckets of print, TV and photography are categories that content providers use to organize their businesses. For the user, however, it is just information.

The medium is no longer the message. The message we seek helps us determine the medium we choose.

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