Mobile Video in All Versions: Too Early to Declare Winners


How handy that the tablet computer deluge is beginning.  Apple’s hyper-hyped iPad, HP’s forthcoming “Slate” and the ensuing slew of digital wireless devices – joining the existing horde of smartphone handsets – will further enable Americans to watch video while they’re on the move. 

Conveniently, the latest Arbitron/Edison Research “Infinite Dial” report, which also surfaced in the past week, augurs more evidence of the appetite of mobile video.  Although the study doesn’t deal directly with such service, its findings about the popularity of Internet content (“the most essential medium” for 42% of respondents, topping TV at 37%) and the dependence on mobile devices points toward an inevitable future.  Fifty-four percent of respondents said that mobile phones have a “big impact on their lives,” making mobile the highest-ranking product, ahead of the 35% who cited television. 

The Arbitron/Edison research also corroborated other studies that found massive online video viewing: 29% of respondents (about 74 million American adults) have watched online videos, nearly double the level of three years ago.  It’s easy to expect that many of them will watch videos on their portable digital devices.

Some television stalwarts still believe that “no one will enjoy TV on a 3-inch or 5-inch screen,” or even the coming wave of 9-inch portable displays.  But experiences in Europe and Asia demonstrate the appeal of TV-on-the-go, and the avalanche of American mobile video ventures assures that we’ll be hearing, and seeing, a lot more about such devices.  As Nielsen now intones, viewers are tuning to “the best available screen,” which may be a high-definition big-screen monitor, a desktop or laptop device at other time, and increasingly, their handheld small screens. 

Hence, the biggest questions are emerging.  Which type (or types) of mobile video will survive and thrive?  And who will deliver it?

Right now the major contenders are:
1. A broadcast mobile Digital TV signal delivered as part of local TV transmissions,
2. A national video stream of dozens of channels drawn from broadcast and cable network sources.
3. Wireless, on-demand access to the plethora of online video sources from Hulu to YouTube, iTunes and beyond. 

Many broadcasters are betting on the first approach, as envisioned by the Open Mobile Video Coalition. OMVC, a collaboration of more than three dozen broadcasting and technology companies, after some delays, will launch its “consumer showcase” in the Washington-Baltimore region later this month.  This field trial will gauge the usage patterns of hundreds of families who are being outfitted with portable devices on which they can watch 20 channels of live TV shows from local broadcast DTV stations.

The second version of mobile TV, now being delivered by FLO-TV (formerly MediaFLO), is available in dozens of markets nationwide. QualComm, the chip-maker behind FLO TV, declines to disclose how many customers have bought for the service, which is marketed directly and via partnerships with mobile carriers such as AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless, typically for fees of about $10 to $15 per month.

Meanwhile, iPhone and other smartphone users are finding that they can watch Web video, although they are subject to the vagaries of the 3G network.  The bigger screens of iPads and other tablets will make this approach more appealing.  Disney’s ABC TV network has already launched an “app” for the iPad, CBS is preparing to offer some shows, starting with “Survivor” for the iPad, and NBC plans to offer selected shows, such as “The Office” for iPad viewing.

As these approaches to mobile video drip into the market, broadcasters, mobile phone companies and content creators are trying to develop financial formulas for these ventures.  The OMVC stations (which use an ATSC-approved mobile standard) and FLO-TV use licensed TV spectrum, so their viewers don’t face the per-minute fees of 3G Web access.

Both camps are exploring extra-fee services.  Local broadcasters would like to find premium content (such as special interest business or sports shows) to transmit in addition to their free local broadcasts.  FLO-TV will launch on-demand and DVR-like features this summer.

Mobile DTV and FLO-TV require the cooperation of wireless carriers to enable their signals in the handsets, which the phone companies generally subsidize.  OMVC has nailed down Sprint for the Washington-Baltimore “showcase.”  

To further confuse customers about what mobile TV is delivering, take a look at some recent marketing campaigns. FLO-TV bought a couple Super Bowl commercials to explain its service.  A few weeks later, AT&T and Samsung ran Olympics commercials to tout their Web video service to selected Samsung handsets, as part of an exclusive collaboration with NBC’s Olympics’ feed.

Coincidentally, Samsung (currently the largest supplier of mobile handsets in the U.S.) is also part of the OMVC Washington “showcase,” where it is supplying its Moment handset for Sprint customers.

As the competitive juices rise – and more mobile video options become available – the industries are getting mixed messages about the marketing challenges they face. Last month, Quick Play Media unveiled a study showing that 56% of U.S. mobile phone users are “interested” (varying from “somewhat” to “very”) in seeing mobile TV and video.  

But the major reason cited for not watching mobile video is its perceived cost. About 14% of people surveyed said they had tried mobile TV in the past but had given up because of technology or price barriers.

Yet initiatives such as cable’s “TV Everywhere” projects are also ready to tap into the perceived demand for access to favorite shows wherever and whenever a viewer gets the urge to watch something.

The mobile video avalanche is just beginning.  Broadcasters, content producers and technology companies will be jostling to figure out how – and at what price – to make video available to viewers on the go.

Note: (If you’re attending the NAB convention, learn more about this topic at “Mobile TV: Ready for Prime Time” on Tuesday, April 13; 1 to 2:30 p.m. in Room S.222 of the Las Vegas Convention Center.   Gary Arlen will moderate a panel of experts representing various mobile video approaches.)

— By Gary Arlen, Arlen Communications Inc.