Tube content for mobile phones is big business

Original content is great — but a repurposed Kiefer Sutherland is even better.

That’s one of the lessons 20th Century Fox TV learned last year with its downloadable mobile phone series “24: Conspiracy,” as it and other U.S. TV programmers continue to figure out the best techniques for producing content for the emerging wireless sector.

The minute-long “mobisodes” had it all: Action, intrigue and a big, startling cliffhanger.

But they didn’t have one key element: “24″ star Sutherland. The “24: Conspiracy” mobisodes revolved around two characters not seen in the “24″ series, providing a companion narrative that weaved in and out of the TV show’s fourth season storyline.

Produced by 20th Century Fox TV globally for Vodafone and domestically for Verizon Wireless’ V Cast service, “24: Conspiracy” developed a loyal following. Still, Lucy Hood, president of Fox Mobile Entertainment, says the studio decided to try something different this year.

The studio, as part of its first mobisode renewal, is responding to fans’ suggest from past seasons of “24″ as its mobisode offering.

“We found that people really wanted (Sutherland’s character) Jack Bauer,” Hood says. “They wanted to catch up with the show, and we’re always looking at what people would really enjoy… It’s for viewers of season five who now want to catch up with seasons one, two, three and four.”

News Corp.’s Foxlab shot “24: Conspiracy,” which in its first season was scripted, cast and shot on digital video with mobile in mind. Hood says 20th and Foxlab quickly learned that mobisodes work best with close-up shots and a steady diet of heightened drama or action.

The studio also found that mobile video users will watch between two minutes and eight minutes in one sitting; hence the decision to double the “24″ mobisodes to two minutes this season.

Globally, Fox Mobile also distributes a mobile version of “The Simple Life” as well as two originals. All told, the company has 100 mobisodes in five languages available in 25 countries.

“It’s astonishing that just a year ago we launched the first mobisodes,” Hood says. “Now, I think we’re seeing the next evolution of mobile content. Consumers are seeing and demanding better and better content.”

Experimental execution still rules in this burgeoning industry. For the ABC series “Lost,” the show’s producers are handling mobile phone content themselves, shooting extra scenes and producing mobisodes on the side.

And over at CBS, the Eye is finally sticking its toe in, developing an ambitious soap opera that would run five to seven original episodes a week, at three to five minutes a pop.

The Eye already has a deal with content aggregator Amp’d Mobile to provide clips from shows such as “CSI: NY” and “Late Show With David Letterman” to Amp’d users, and provides CBS News, “Entertainment Tonight” and other clips to Vcast.

NBC focuses on repackaging existing content for cell phone users, mostly from NBC News and “Access Hollywood.” The feeling at NBC is that users tend to gravitate toward content they’re familiar with, rather than phone-exclusive mobisodes. The Peacock continues to expand its offerings, adding clips such as Jay Leno’s monologues from “The Tonight Show.”

Salil Dalvi, NBC’s VP for wireless platforms, says he’s still wondering to what extent users will tune into mobile phone video content every day, vs. tuning in only when there’s something they know they need to see.

“It’s something we’re researching, but we don’t have a definitive answer at this point,” he says.

Dalvi says NBC Mobile is careful in picking and choosing clips that would be cell phone-friendly — such as the Leno monologue, which easily frames the “Tonight Show” host on the small screen.

Verizon Wireless chief marketing officer John Stratton warns that not all TV content is mobile-friendly.

“What we talk to Hollywood about is, first, it’s important to develop the content with the mobile medium in mind,” he says. “You can’t really just copy, paste and push it over across the phone — the rendering is not quite right. You want to have tight framing.”

As for what’s next, no one knows how big the mobisode and mobile phone programming space will grow in the next few years. Hood points out that the average user is still under the age of 25 — a rather fickle demo — while Dalvi is bullish on the impact of more cell phones with video capabilities landing in consumers’ hands.

“When you look at the number of devices out there, there are 2 billion mobile users throughout the world,” Dalvi says. “And over the next few years, tens of millions of users will be able to receive video here in the U.S. What’s unique about the cell phone market is that the carriers are able to push devices into people’s hands. That opportunity to get new devices to hundreds of millions of users is very exciting.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more