Magic for the small screem

Mobile TV had not been the success some had predicted, but putting more thought into the content could help it take off, says Tom Weiss.

During this year’s World Cup, hype surrounding mobile TV reached an all-time high, with almost every pundit predicting wild success for services that allowed subscribers to watch the likes of Beckham and Rooney scoring goals live on their mobile. But the real winners were the likes of Dixons and Punch Taverns as people left their phones behind and watched the matches on new flat-screen TVs or with friends down the pub.

Despite all that has been written, the question of what people will actually watch on their phones has largely been avoided. Indeed, one report on mobile TV published a few months ago contained only a small section on content issues, saying “it is unclear what content will be compelling on the mobile platform” and the operators and technologists seem happy to evangelise their wares without worrying about what people will watch. Of course, for those who are looking to make money out of mobile TV, it is the critical question.

If we learned one thing from the World Cup, it’s that we can’t consider mobile viewing in isolation from other television. Among the early adopters, there is a lot of competition for eyeballs: as well as over 300 channels on Sky, cheap DVD rental, downloads from iTunes, and endless clips on YouTube, there are illegal film and TV downloads from bit-torrent, and most of the content that people download to their PCs they can now copy across to their iPods or phones and watch it free on the move.

Unless people do not have access to a computer or a TV, they are unlikely to watch significant amounts of television on their mobile phones when it is already available elsewhere, and propositions for the mobile platform need to be carefully tailored, rather than just repackaged.

BT’s trials earlier this year of terrestrial channels broadcast direct to mobile phones achieved an average of only one hour of viewing per user, compared to 22 hours a week for conventional TV. This is a paltry figure, and unlikely to bring in significant additional revenues for any brand operating in this space.

In order to raise the number of mobile viewing hours to a level that is commercially viable, compelling packages of content must be put together specifically for the mobile platform. As a rule of thumb, people will watch TV on a mobile as the device of last resort: if they’re at a PC they’ll watch on their PC, if they’re in front of a TV they’ll watch that – the tiny screen will only win when the alternatives are unavailable.

The key time when people can’t use their PC or TV is when they’re on the move, and much has been said about watching TV shows on your phone while commuting. For people with a long commute this is an attractive option, but mobile phones may not be the best device to do this on: airports have long sold portable DVD players that can be used on flights, and with the rise of Apple’s video iPod and legal downloading, it seems more likely that people will download to their iPod rather than risk constant signal drop-outs in tunnels or blackspots while they’re trying to watch a show.

Of course, there’s a lot of content that people can watch on their mobile that they can’t necessarily get on their iPod, and the main factor here is interactivity. YouTube, an undisputed Web phenomenon, would probably make compelling mobile content, as would a lot of the previews and clips conventional broadcasters are putting online.

At TV Genius, we have found that we can manage viewing across different platforms by providing a single TV Guide that offers users appropriate content at appropriate times: if someone is an EastEnders fan, we can offer them the preview of tonight’s episode. If they’re not going to be able to watch tonight’s episode, we can offer to program their video recorder for them or alternatively send them a catch-up clip the following day.

This can produce compelling, bite-sized, and relevant content for the mobile platform. We’ve been working closely with What’s On TV, which recently launched its mobile product. As the UK’s highest-selling TV-listings magazine, it has high hopes for the success of mobile, and the entry of such a major media player should not be underestimated by those who believe the writing is on the wall for mobile TV.

Despite its (and England’s) relative failure of the World Cup, the technology for mobile TV is now ready, and compelling content will be coming to a handset near you earlier than you think.

Tom Weiss is author of the book Mobile Strategies and chief executive of TV Genius

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