'Mobisodes' the latest digital wrinkle on original material

TIP SHEET
What: Mobile Entertainment Summit 2005
When: Sept. 26
Where: Nob Hill Masonic Center, San Francisco
What: CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment 2005
When: Sept. 27-29
Where: Moscone West, San Francisco

Now that increasing numbers of the 195 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. can get more than just calls on their cell phones, the question of what form entertainment content will take is beginning to be answered by the nascent medium’s forays into original material.

While games, graphics and ringtones are well-established, Americans can now add “mobisodes,” byte-sized clips that play on a cell phone’s screen, to their busy entertainment schedules. Whether the term sticks or not, mobile entertainment clearly is taking hold. Wireless subscribers using the latest generation phones can watch news from CNN, clips from “Rock Star: INXS” and Cartoon Network, or play mobile “Jeopardy!” while waiting for their lattes.

Fox Mobile Entertainment has made a high-profile jump into original mobisodes with “24: Conspiracy,” its series of minute-long scenarios inspired by Fox TV’s “24.”

“We’re moving into mass media acceptance,” says Lucy Hood, Fox Mobile prexy.

The “24: Conspiracy” mobisodes ran in the U.K. and U.S. during the last TV season, and Hood expects “they will eventually play in 30 countries.”

While details of next season’s mobisodes have not been unannounced, Fox has committed to January launch of a “24”-themed mobile game from I-Play (creators of mobile games like “2 Fast 2 Furious”).

“You’re an agent using your spy phone to contact and guide other agents through various challenges,” says Hood. “It’s what the phone does best.”

Cell phone users like games based on media franchises, says Sony Mobile VP Jason Wells.

“Among our most popular are ‘Jeopardy!,’ ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ which people can play for prizes.”

The elusive female gamer seems to be more reachable on her cell phone, too, according to Wells.

How people will pay to access mobile content — whether through subscriptions or pay-to-play — is still evolving. But, unlike Internet content, nobody expects mobile content to be free.

People seem happy to pay to call in votes for contestants on Fox TV’s “American Idol” or CBS’ “Rock Star: INXS.”

Verizon’s new VCast network makes it easy for “Rock Star” fans to watch video clips of performances and vote for their preference. Unlike the jerky video of older cell phones, the new generation of phones stream video and sound of much higher quality.

For music-based content, quality is crucial to attract younger, high-volume cell phone users — a fact not lost on Motorola and Apple, whose partnership produced the recently unveiled iTunes-compatible Rokr cell phone available through Cingular.

Another music option is streaming audio, such as the Warner Mobile Music service, which gives users who pay a subscription fee access to songs streamed to phones on demand.

With so many wireless subscribers in the U.S. alone, the opportunities are enticing, but the compact screen of a cell phone has inherent limitations.

“The framing is very different, so mobile content is 80% focused on close-ups,” says Frank Chindamo of Fun Little Movies, which presented the first mobile video at CTIA in 2003. “Repurposing content from existing properties doesn’t lend itself to that.”

Of course, mobile divisions of majors like Fox and Sony expect to custom-design content for cell phone delivery, even when extending an existing franchise.

But Chindamo, whose company produces comic videos like “Love Bytes” for Sprint, thinks smaller providers can compete.

“It’s predicted that 80% of mobile content will be branded, which leaves 20% of the field wide open.”

Optimism about this emerging medium also drives Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee, whose POW! Mobile signed an exclusive deal with streaming technology provider Vidiator, which believes that comicbook, anime and manga are ideal for wireless delivery.

Launch plans are targeting 3G phones with “The Accuser” and “The Drifter.” “We have about 20 one-minute episodes of each already done,” says Lee. “Each one ends with a cliffhanger.”

Vidiator has also inked a deal for wireless versions of Top Cow comicbook epics like “Witchblade.”

These new offerings will debut overseas before the U.S., which trails Europe and Pacific Rim countries in streaming video to cell phones.

“In Asia, most people walking down the street are holding cell phones in front of them, looking at streaming videos,” Lee jokes. “They’re bumping into things, which is great for the Band-Aid business!”

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