The future of TV is mobile

Friday, April 28th, 2006

Alex Strachan

We have seen the future of TV and it is mobile. If what is happening in the U.S. is any indication, you may soon be watching TV on your iPod or cellphone.

You can’t watch The Office while at the office on these devices just yet, but a combination of technological advances and growing interest in “TV on the go” in the U.S., Japan and Europe means that day may not be far away.

A recent ratings survey of TV episodes available on the U.S. iTunes store found The Office landed in 15 of the top 40 spots that week.

One major U.S. network, ABC, will offer ad-supported, full-length episodes of Desperate Housewives, Lost and Grey’s Anatomy free of charge at, beginning in June. The entire season of Alias will also be available.

Fox and Toyota will team together next month to produce Prison Break: Proof of Innocence, a series of two-minute “mobisodes” spun off from Fox’s Prison Break. Each mobisode will open with a 10-second spot for Toyota, and will be seen exclusively on cellphones.

Similarly, NBC is planning to air 10 exclusive, online-only “webisodes” of The Office over the summer, starring some of the show’s lesser known, supporting players.

Weekly 30-second promos for 24 are already available for download from Canada’s iTunes. Full-length episodes of TV shows are not available here yet, but if CTV, Global and iTunes Canada decision-makers have their way, they soon will be.

Mobile TV, the latest in a long line of promises of TV interactivity, is no longer a pipe dream. The prospect of being able to watch that lost episode of Lost on a cellphone or iPod while standing in line at the bank is too good a deal to turn down for many TV consumers.

TV content is supported and paid for in large part by the advertising industry. Increasingly, however, viewers complain it is being delivered in a way that is incompatible with their lives. The traditional television industry — the mainstream broadcast networks and the cable specialty channels — is in danger of being “Napsterized,” some analysts believe. Despite generating $60 billion US in ad revenue, these analysts insist, TV will have to adapt or eventually die.

“If you’re a marketer, you need to be where the eyeballs are,” David Katz, head of sports and entertainment for the Yahoo Media Group, told reporters earlier this year at a conference in Pasadena, Calif.

“And that goes for network television programmers as much as any other product or service.”

But being able to watch Desperate Housewives on the go will not spell the end of traditional viewing as we know it, says Albert Cheng, president of ABC-Disney Television’s digital division — the same studio that produces Desperate Housewives, Lost and Grey’s Anatomy.

He insisted at the same conference that, far from driving viewers away from the traditional networks, iPod downloads and so-called “podcasts” actually drive more viewers to the original network broadcasts.

“We’ve seen that already with things we’ve done for Apple iTunes, with Desperate [Housewives] and Lost,” Cheng said.

“It has not taken away viewers from our shows, not at all. It’s actually increased our viewership.”

Cheng said ABC-Disney embraced the iTunes concept to stymie what the company saw as unchecked piracy and file-sharing.


“This technology is changing the way people are consuming media,” Cheng said.

“The company took a huge, bold step, but in a way it has made my job easier. We need to make sure we are where the consumers are, and deliver something consumers will value. The key message here is that we need to be forward-thinking about what consumers want.”


Skeptics can be forgiven for wondering if mobile video is yet another example of gadgetry run amok, out of touch with the reality of people’s everyday lives, or pie-in-the-sky promises that don’t match expectations once they’re realized.

Brad Adgate, research director for Horizon Media, says it’s a generational issue: Young people get it. Older people are more resistant.

“Take the MTV Video Music Awards as an example,” Adgate said.

“They had 11 million downloads within two weeks of its air date at the end of August, and their ratings were down 22 per cent. The MTV Music Awards targets an audience that is 12- to 34-years-old. Last summer, the Live 8 concert on ABC had three million viewers, but a cumulative five million people downloaded the concert online. The tide is changing.”

Others wonder if people are really willing to watch TV on a two-inch TV screen.

Media analyst Mark Glaser, who supervises PBS’s technology-oriented MediaShift blog at, has wondered himself.

“I asked this very question on the blog I started [at PBS],” Glaser said.

” ‘What would you watch on a small video screen, on an iPod?’ And people were saying, ‘If I was stuck in a line somewhere, I would watch anything.’ “

ABC-Disney’s Cheng concurred.

“With young people, screen size doesn’t really matter that much,” he said. “When you look at the demographic of the Apple iPod user, it tends to skew young, anywhere between 15 and 29.”


Digital downloads and mobile video may eventually prove a boon for lesser-known, out-of-print titles, the way DVD has, said Glaser.

“In the past, moves, books, music — all those things that depended on distribution to retail outlets — had to deal with a finite amount of shelf space,” he said.

“The Internet and new distribution avenues like mobile video are opening it up to the point where you can have an unlimited amount of inventory. If you can pull out all your old TV shows, all the books that are out of print, all the old music that’s gone out of print, and somehow make that available online, this pent-up demand for out-of-print media could create a million little niches.

“What that means to a big media company is that you can do just as well with all these little niches as you do with your big, mass market hits.”

Companies like Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner are betting big on new delivery technologies.

“They are investing billions of dollars in this,” Adgate said. “I don’t think this is something they would be investing in if they didn’t think it was going to happen. There’s too much riding on this.”

Young consumers are the future of any large corporation, he insists.

“The big media companies understand that to stay relevant to younger consumers . . . they’re going to have to embrace this new technology.”

For now, it’s a generational issue. But it may not stay that way, Adgate believes.

“As prices come down, I think it will get more mainstream. But it’s not going to happen overnight. As it stands right now, $60 billion is spent on TV. And if you look at mobile video and broadband video, it’s under a billion dollars. There’s a lot of room there for growth.

“But if you look at Korea and Japan, where the technological infrastructure is a lot better than it is here, for any number of reasons, you’ll see it’s a lot more commonplace than you might expect. And it’s embraced by all generations there. I think, some point down the road, it’s going to happen here.”

Almost everything with a screen will be competing with your family-room television for your viewing time. Some content isn’t even available on cable or satellite any more.

© The Vancouver Sun 2006


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