Cablers team up for live TV on cell phones

The country’s largest cable operators unveiled a deal Wednesday that could bring live television to cell phones as early as next year. But questions about licensing and security surrounded the announcement.

Sprint, Nextel, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and Advance/Newhouse have committed a total of $200 million to a pact that will bring together television and wireless beginning in 2006. Sprint will fund $100 million; cable operators will put up the rest.

Companies were spurred by enthusiasm surrounding the announcement of mobile programming for shows like “Desperate Housewives” (Daily Variety, Oct. 13) and research that shows a younger demo often prefers video to-go.

For cable operators, Sprint offers a wide network of customers outside their existing base and the possibility of tempting existing customers with cell-phone content. It also enters the operators into the burgeoning wireless market.

Pact runs 20 years, but is exclusive only for the first three.

Several analysts noted the move could draw a line in the sand with other wireless firms, which could look to satellite TV outfits for similar deals to would provide customers and content.

In addition to offering live and recorded television, the joint effort will yield high-speed Internet, voicemail and the ability to program personal videorecorders remotely.

Sprint prexy Gary Forsee talked frequently at Wednesday’s Gotham unveiling about a “third screen” to complement TV and computer screens. But execs also acknowledged that much heavy lifting remained, especially as cable operators undertook the thorny business of negotiating licensing deals with individual nets, some of whom will likely worry about being “Napsterized.”

And because cell-phone screens are so small, they could be a tough sell to customers for full-length programs.

Comcast prexy Brian Roberts told Daily Variety that at the moment his firm saw a market less for full-length programs and more for “video ring-tones,” condensed versions of programs like sports and news that customers might be willing to pay separately for.

“You look at cell phones and people are willing to pay $1.99 for a few bars even though they can buy the whole song for 99¢,” he said with a chuckle.

Though the deal was in the works for some time, Roberts pointed to recent announcements of iTunes-connected phones as opening the door to new forms of convergence.

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