At the Future of Television in Hollywood a few days ago, a high-level panel took a look at the opportunities and challenges facing the television industry. Moderated by Bill Sanders, president, Pervasive Media, panelists included Tim Connolly, vp, mobile distribution, Disney/ABC/ESPN Media Networks; Kraig Baker, partner, David Wright Tremaine LLP; Jim Eadie, vp,
Sanders started off by polling the audience on how many watched video on their mobile phone–streaming or downloading–or a weekly basis. As is typical for these casual polls, the answer was…almost no one. But Sanders wasn’t discouraged. “We need to move beyond it being a ‘gee whiz’ thing to where it’s a business,” he said. He asked every panelist to describe some development they’ve seen in the last year that has changed the game…or will change the game in the next 6 to 12 months.
Steve Bradbury, GoTV: I think when you go beyond the iPhone and start talking about the Android that’s come out of the box strong and will have a proliferation, that’s interesting. LG will do a store, Blackberry and Palm will have a store. The whole idea of carriers no longer being that central focus [is a game changer]. Handset mfrs trying to take back control of content is a coming trend.
Kraig Baker, David Wright Tremaine LLP: The two things that I think are really interesting is the way mobile is morphing and creating rights issues. The first is that everyone thinks mobile is a carrier-based platform. But look at iTouch, Nintendo and so on…There are huge numbers of mobile entertainment devices that don’t have a carrier tied to them. People can get bandwidth without being tied to a carrier. Secondly, people are using mobile devices also for mobile storage devices. I take my iPod and listen to it while I’m on the bus but then stick in my player at work and at home to play music. It’s become a portable device.
Jim Eadie, MTV Networks: In the next 6 to 12 months, I would say that a third element we’ve noticed is really a shift in expectations around the ad market. We were pretty bullish on mobile video market. If you look at E-Marketer expectations from a year ago and [compare that with] today, you’ll see annual estimates down two to three times. That’s a pretty incredible statistic. But we’re bullish on the market coming back. That stat has to do with the macro-economic environment.
Jonathan Barzilay, FloTV: If I look at things over the last 6 to 12 months, Barack Obama and the NCAA are the most significant things. There were tremendous spikes around the presidential inauguration and debates. Similarly last weekend, with our partner AT&T, we carried four dedicated channels of NCAA basketball – you could watch every [March Madness] tournament. If you look to watershed moments [in mobile television], political and sports driven by immediate live events will be formative.
John Lawnson, ION Media Networks: Broadcast TV goes all-digital on June 12, but broadcasting won’t go away. Wireless is a massive wireless distribution platform [for broadcasters]. LG and Samsung learned how to provide a robust video programming service. We think that this represents the biggest upside to the broadcasting industry in decades. The last few months has seen the adoption of an open standard by the ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee). At NAB, we’ll be announcing a partners-development group that will include programmers. At CES, we announced we’d be launching a free-to-air advertiser-supported mobile network. It is an open standard so it enables a wide range of business models – pay-per-use, subscriber and advertiser-supported. The key is not just the mobility but in the 60 year history of TV broadcasting, this will be the first time we won’t be sending out content to a dumb devices. We’ll be able to get data back in terms of what the consumer is watching, how much, what their transactions are, where they are. With permissions, of course, it enables a new generation of broadcasting and transactions. The consumer will have a lot of control; we’ll have a DVR capability. People want real television and they’ll use these devices to watch it. We think the return channel enables commerce and measurement. But there’s an opportunity with providers – carriers and others – to continue to provide one-on-one on-demand content. Our ability to push out massive amounts of video creates opportunities for partnerships with those taking advantage of the spectrum.
Tim Connolly, Disney/ABC, ESPN: Formative for the market overall in the last 12 months is the fact that we now have more than 10 million people subscribing to video services. Across our properties, we’ll see more than 100 million views over a 12 month period. That’s still fairly small when you think of the numbers of mobile phones in the US, but it’s a strong number. We can say there’s really a market.
The conversation then turned to the business model that would make mobile television take off. Connolly noted that his company is not a big believer in the advertiser-only model.”In order for us to spend the money necessary to acquire and create great experiences for users, we’re convinced the only way to make that work is a dual revenue from subscription, with advertising as the complement,” he said. ” I don’t think you’ll find many people who think $50 a month is a bad deal to get 200 cable channels at home. I think we can create a similarly good deal on the mobile phone.”
Barzilay pointed out that in today’s hyper-linked world, the TV, computer and phone “are all part of the same eco-system.” “We have to make it simple, recognizable and familiar, particularly on mobile,” he said. Bradbury seconded the concept that familiarity was “the shortest distance for consuming media,” but noted that mobile devices’ short battery life still stood in the way of consuming long-form content. “Ultimately there’s room for long-form content, for content on a particular schedule and short-form on-demand content,” he said. “We made our name in short-form on-demand but we acknowledge long-form opportunities.”
Barzilay agreed that there’s room for both short and long-form content. “The mobile primetime is wider and deeper than traditional primetime on TV,” he said. “It’s much more consistent from late morning through early evening. There’s room for a lot of time-shifting within that model. We have live programs, like The Today Show when you’d expect it to be on But if you miss Late Night with Conan, that’s made available to you throughout the day.”
“At the end of the day it’s about user experience,” said Bradbury. “Whether it’s long form or short form, you’ll be drawn to a better experience. The mobile phone is still early in its evolution of consuming video, which started in 2005, commercially. We’re only a few years into this experience. As the carriers in general improve that hype, we’ll all benefit from it. That will lift all boats. The mobile phone still isn’t as compelling an experience as your TV or you computer monitor – but it’s getting better.”
Sanders noted that, with PlayStation and portable DVD players, there is no shortage of small video devices. He asked if the mobile video industry is asking viewers to “go back to regular, linear TV on the phone.” “Or will it be as interactive and social as online?” he asked. Panelists agreed that “we’re not going backwards.” “I think we’ll start to see mobile morph into just another platform where people are consuming in five or six different ways,” said Baker.
“If nothing else, the iPhone has made us take a step back and take a look at what is mobile, what is online,” said Eadie. “We have a number of distribution partners that have created iPhone apps, and, in each case, there’s a different philosophy. It’s driving more of a convergence experience.” Connolly added that the iPhone NCAA app gives the user a great capability to look at stats and move seamlessly between video capabilities, as the live game is going on. “We’re in the early days of mobile video,” he stressed. “For the most part, we’re taking our traditional franchises to this new platform. But we try to create something unique for each platform it’s residing on, and have those unique capabilities have a mutually reinforcing capabilities back to the other platforms. That make you want to watch Lost on TV, but go online to do other things related to the program.”
The discussion turned to brand, and whether it belonged to the program or the network. Connolly noted that “Disney Channel as a brand and as a channel has a unique brand attribute that resides within each of the programs within Disney Channel – Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Hannah Montana.” “Whereas with our broadcast network ABC, there isn’t as much of a consistent theme between Ugly Betty, Lost and Desperate Housewives,” he said. “There it’s more about the franchise than the ABC brand.” Just as cable operators license Disney (or ABC) content, said Connolly, so wireless operators have an opportunity to create a bundle. “You can get TV cable, broadband and home phone from the same provider,” he said. “Both cable operators and telcos can then say, Now you can get mobile from us.”
Sanders pointed out that “there are more and more different avenues to get video that don’t come through the carriers deck.” “Discoverability will become really really important,” he said. GoTV’s Bradbury noted that discoverability is an on-going challenge. “We don’t have the resources of some of my colleagues on the panel have. We don’t have an established media base. We are doing more and more partnerships with Fortune 500 companies: Lexus, Wrigleys.” But the challenge is on-going. “You hope the cream rises to the top and to some extent that happens,” he said. “Does that get you to the gross number of viewers you want or do you remain a niche player? We’re peddling as fast as we can.”
Television broadcasters have enormous clout in getting the word out about their mobile TV capabilities, says Lawson, who pointed to the very high public awareness of broadcast television’s transition to digital. “Broadcasters still have enormous power to reach people across the country and we will dedicate some of those resources to make sure the public understands that broadcaster will offer free-over -the-air broadcast to a wide range of mobile devices,” he said. “And with regard to branding and discoverability, we’ve learned with consumer trials is that people really want local. They want news, weather, sports, restaurant reviews, information about retail. The broadcasters have always played that role. We feel it gives us a tremendous opportunity as we roll out mobile to maintain that. ”
How to keep consumer interest is incumbent on broadcasters as well as anyone else in the mobile television business. One way to keep that interest, said Sanders, is through talent. “That’s how we look at it,” said Connolly. “And the same holds true for sports, news and other information services. The information is a commodity but you develop a brand through personalities.” MTV’s Eadie reported that they’ve started rolling out free ad-supported video on their mobile websites. “We look at that discoverability element as very important,” he said. “We want to provide a good content experience.”