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ANALYSIS Mobile TV – Quo Vadis?

BRINGING entertainment to the consumer in a user-friendly fashion has been a persistent quest of both content producers and suppliers of delivery tools. That mobile operators want to join the bandwagon is natural and rather exciting as many of them are parroting online delivery prophets in announcing the death of packaged media. DVD Intelligence publisher JEAN-LUC RENAUD tells why DVD is still safe.

I recall my days as a film buff, transporting a 16 millimeter projector to university campuses and remote villages to show feature films to people within uneasy reach of cinema theaters. As far as the moving image is concerned it was certainly an early attempt at media “mobility” and “portability.”

The advent of packaged media, now culminating in DVD Video discs and high-storage memory sticks, has brought mobile delivery of entertainment a step further: individual, personalised consumption.

Computer laptops, portable DVD players, in-car entertainment systems, PlayStation Portable and video MP3 devices have moved access to video on the road, out of the living-room.

Transmitting a television signal to a handheld device is still a tall order. There is no doubt that storage, battery life, brightness and picture quality are improving by leaps and bounds as are transmission bitrates. But it is the device’s screen size that will determine to a large extent what the consumer will be willing to watch and pay for.

There is some evidence that users of advanced-featured mobile phones spend less time watching television – indeed less time staying home! But they are not accessing the content they would have otherwise watched on living-room television. Feature-length films are a no-go area for mobile reception, television programmes fare no better, and any suggestion mobile video will replicate MP3 music consumption is misplaced.

For one, the growth of MP3 is based on the retailing of individual music tracks, freeing consumer from buying a whole CD. A 90-minute film cannot be sliced (though trailers are ideally suited for mobile offerings). Also, music listening allows for the pursuit of other activities; watching video, let alone a full movie, doesn’t. In fact, allocating time to screen live video content on the move is a tricky exercise, so long as signal transmission is off-limit underground train stations!

There is some irony in the fact that TV programming is the fastest-growing genre on DVD, now accounting for over 20% of annual DVD Video sales. Delivering television content will be a tall order for mobile operators. So, mobile TV is for “short form” content, no encroachment on DVD territory here.

It is worth keeping in mind that delivering video on a mobile device, however attractive a proposition, is not the only game in town. High-definition television broadcasting is arriving. Large HD-ready plasma screens are selling like hot cakes. Next-generation high-resolution DVD players are now on the shelves. These raise the bar against which consumers will judge the mobile TV experience.

The home entertainment experience has never been so good and mobile operators and handset manufacturers will have to fight ever harder for the hearts and minds and disposable income of the consumer.

The advent of high-speed mobile delivery technologies opens up opportunities today’s broadcasters are certainly ill-equipped to offer. But telephone operators aggressively promoting mobile TV services in their anxiety to make up for decreasing fixed line revenues would be unwise to treat broadcasters, not to say broadcast television itself, as dinosaurs on the way to extinction.

Yes, mobile operators should and will tap into the user-generated content newcomers like YouTube and MySpace have brought about. Whether the television industry itself is heading that way is far from certain. Local, community-based TV services run by the people they were to serve never succeeded. With very few exceptions, neighbourhood radio stations did not fare better.

Consumers are demanding. The most watched television material are expensively-produced series like Lost, then downloaded (legally or not) from websites or bought on DVD. User-generated content – much peddled at MIPCOM – may thus not be the solid basis for a sustained business model for mobile TV.

On-demand/pay-per-view television is much touted by mobile (and iPTV) operators -as a cash-flow proposition in the bundle of services. But video on demand – not a new concept – has had a troubled history so far. Consumers much preferred the “all-you-can-eat” monthly subscription model, especially if the various programme packages to sign up for have been fined-tuned to an art form over many years by TV aggregators such as Sky, Canal+ and others.

Mobile TV operators should stay out of the content ownership and aggregation business, which they know very little about, and instead partner with those who have developed a great deal of expertise, mostly the broadcasters. France Telecom latest plan to establish its own film studio is pure folly!

Advertising-supported content certainly ought to be part of the mobile offering. But, if television consumption is to go by, viewers expect this content to be free. So, mobile operators will find it hard to offer ad-supported content and somehow charge for it. Consumers go at great length to try to skip the commercial breaks with TiVo-style personal video recorders or HDD+DVD recorders.

As someone who has breathed a sigh of relief when the consumer electronics industry managed to unify two incompatible formats before launching the DVD standard in 1996, but who is concerned that the same industry could not arrived at the same compromise this time around, thus launching two incompatible next-generation HD disc formats – Blu-ray and HD DVD – I am flabbergasted at the large number of technical standards still being contemplated for mobile TV!

The region coding mechanism that prevented a DVD bought in the USA to play in Europe has long been defeated!

The beauty of mobile telephony is the ability to call home while abroad. Accessing the Internet or sending emails is done wherever you are in the world. It would be indeed awkward for the newest technology not to make it possible for a French mobile user to pick up BBC television on his handset while visiting the UK!

I can only hope that interoperability is high on the agenda of decision-makers, reminding them that operators’ technology push should be balanced with consumer demand pull, a balance that will ultimately have to tilt towards the latter.

Mobile television will come, slower than predicted, and will add to the panoply of media delivery systems, not replace any existing one. As for content, feature-length movies on DVDs are safe. Less safe may be the consumers’ leisure time diverted away from DVD watching by novel media practices.

When all is said and done, remember: the worldwide DVD market may be slowing down, even stagnate, but last year 500 million households with a DVD player (one billion with a PC) spent an estimated $40bn on content. In my book, it is still a business worth writing home about!

Story filed 28.01.07

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