Cell phone auds on hold

Networks are scrambling to sign deals for mobile phone content, but will there be anything worth watching — and will consumers be able to find it if there is?

In the last few days, CBS and ABC unveiled plans for news segments on mobile phones. Viacom debuted a service that makes available clips from a vast catalog of MTV and Comedy Central shows. Fox started a branded store that puts everything from original programming to clips of “Family Guy” and theatrical movies on the sliverscreen.

Add this to ESPN’s new mobile service, Verizon V┬áCast and startups like MobiTV and Amp’d that sell bushels of programming and you have a content bonanza.

All this activity may seem counterintuitive. Cell phones aren’t exactly designed for pleasurable viewing, and all the deals in the world won’t matter if consumers don’t want to see, let alone pay for, the shows the deals cover.

In fact, in some cases, caution and fewer deals may be the wiser strategy.

“It’s like satellite radio,” said media analyst Bruce Leichtman. “Every company is afraid to miss something. So they spend all this money adding all this content when nobody knows what consumers really want.”

There are signs that the networks realize they can’t just throw spaghetti at the wall, especially if the noodles all look pretty much the same.

“We’ll never be successful until we think of this as a new medium,” said CBS Mobile veep Cyriac Roeding. “No one would think of putting a newspaper on television. Why would you just put television on a cell phone?”

So CBS is creating an original mobile soap opera; while the details are unclear, Roeding says it will build the device’s interactivity into the narrative.

Others nets agree they need to exploit the medium’s strengths.

“What’s unique to mobile is all the different content types,” said Fox Mobile Entertainment prexy Lucy Hood. “You can use it to personalize, communicate or entertain.”

That’s why, she says, Fox has made original shows a linchpin, and it’s also why ESPN is beginning to localize clips for users, allowing it to compete with regional Fox Sports Net stations in ways it can’t on the air.

Yet even original programming can be risky — for the new season of “24,” Fox switched from last year’s “mobisode” model, in which supporting characters were featured in original storylines, in favor of repurposed Jack Bauer.

A coherent business model has sometimes been as hard to see as, well, the screen itself. On a typical mobile TV transaction, a network often shares profits with both carriers and startups, leaving a small slice from a pie that wasn’t very big to begin with.

The pricing isn’t helping, either: Is it iTunes’ a la carte model or pay TV’s subscription model that’s the way to go? Right now, phone owners can spend 99¢ for a month of CBS News clips, $5.95 for a subscription to all of Comedy Central, $9.95 for membership to MobiTV (which offers CNN Intl. but not CNN or CNN Headline News) or some confusing combination of all of them.

If this keeps up, cell phone bills could start to look like encyclopedias. “A DVD can play on every DVD player. Mobile television is much more complicated,” admitted NBC U Digital Media veep Salil Dalvi.

Still, the potential is proving irresistible, especially for network news, which has suffered most from consumers’ longer workdays and mobile lifestyle. Execs like Leslie Moonves and Peter Chernin can’t stop flogging mobile, and congloms have spent tens of millions on research and development — and, lately, marketing.

“The long-term business model is similar to the cable model: We want to be paid sub fees and get incremental advertising,” said Bernard Gershon, senior veep for ABC News Digital Media.

As nearly every network new-media exec points out, a cell phone is one of the few devices billions of people around the world always carry with them.

Because cell phones are pretty much always networked, they, unlike iPods, offer the possibility of up-to-the-minute broadcasts. NBC is bundling an Oscar package that will ensure a certain kind of actor can gaze at himself on TV from right inside the Kodak Theater.

“There’s a massive market that knows what television is and is just begging for new ways to use it,” said MobiTV chief exec Phillip Alvelda. “We just need to be gentle in how we lead it there.”

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