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Phone fad, program pipeline unite

Diverse cell content, new platforms among many topics at popular Mobile Monday

Mobile phones may be shrinking, but their impact is growing by leaps and bounds as video-capable devices create demand for content.

And as NATPE serves up another pre-confab Mobile Monday event, it’s becoming clear that it’s going to take more than just putting regular TV shows on cell phones to take full advantage of this burgeoning market.

“Mobile TV may initially look like a tech conversion where live TV comes to your phone,” says Tom Ellsworth, chief strategy officer for GoTV Networks. “What it should look like is what you need and what you want when you’re on the go.”

“I don’t think any producers going into the future will be able to survive solely on television productions,” says Sports HD chief operating officer Matt Bortz, who is looking at platforms beyond cell phones.

“Multimedia is certainly our view of the future and the direction we’re heading,” he continues, “so we look for projects and productions that lend themselves to multiplatform distribution. Consumers want to be able to access a number of high-quality video content in a number of convenient ways, whether at the beach with their iPod or at their office downloading on their computer.”

Sports HD specializes in docusports, described by Bortz as “behind-the-scenes shoulder programming that has a long shelf life that distributors can use and reuse a number of times while remaining fresh. And while our core revenue on an ongoing basis will be our television series, we’re also looking for productions that lend themselves to multiplatform distribution.

Short and funny is the path preferred by international format titan FremantleMedia. “We don’t think people will stay in front of their phone for a half-hour or an hour,” says Olivier Gers, the company’s exec VP licensing worldwide, Americas.

Figuring out what kind of content will inspire people to watch on their tiny cell phone screens is a question that has multiple answers, all of which involve flexibility, ease of use, customization and tailoring of content specifically to the new medium.

Ellsworth says GoTV’s Sprint music services — the hip-hop outlet Pure Phat and indie rock version ALTitude — have succeeded by putting the audience’s needs before the capabilities of the technology.

The subscription services offer customization similar to My Yahoo! or My eBay, with a menu that includes music charts, new releases, concert dates, reviews and news. The service is updated frequently — up to a couple of times a day — and each segment can be viewed separately or together in any order.

People have direct, one-to-one relationships with their cell phones that, when combined with the devices’ built-in interactive capabilities and facility for commerce through direct billing, gives the medium plenty of new territory to explore.

The biggest problem facing traditional broadcasters and content providers, says Gary Carter, FremantleMedia’s chief creative officer of new platforms, is rethinking the role of the consumer.

“The audience has been creatively empowered by technology. Reality TV emerged partly because of audience expectation, and, for the producers, certain kinds of production activities became cheap and achievable because of digital logging.

“Forget the medium in which it is distributed, forget whether it comes on television or the Internet or on your iPod; this content is going to be ‘platform agnostic.’ Good ideas are going to be expressed on different kinds of platforms, but they are not going to be developed for just one.”

John Puterbaugh, president of tech firm Nellymoser, says many media companies look at cell phones as a kind of universal remote control, allowing interactive abilities such as voting for contestants on “American Idol.” Others, including Nellymoser, see it as a personal media device that, like an iPod, will receive, store and display music, games, photos and information as well as video. That makes the device ideal for driving the discovery of new and old media.

“Appointment media will no longer be the central arbiter for how people will discover things,” he says.

No matter how it’s delivered, content has to entertain to be successful.

Of the major studios, Fox has been at the forefront of creating original content, having produced four original series of mobisodes, including high-profile TV spinoffs “24: Conspiracy” and “The Simple Life: Interns.”

“What mobile viewers want is a quick snack of entertainment,” says Lucy Hood, Fox VP of mobile. “So whether that’s a couple of minutes of comedy or a several-minute dramatic series that pulls you back in week after week, that’s what we’re looking to create.”

GoTV worked with ABC on creating recap episodes for “Desperate Housewives,” “Alias” and “Lost” that run three or four minutes and update viewers on pertinent plot developments. Ellsworth says the company developed a wireless-style guide to ensure the material remained entertaining and clear in the transition to cell phone screens.

“We are getting increasing number of calls from people who are saying, ‘I get this, and it’s not as easy as sending my masters out for DV conversion,’ ” he says.

Gers says Fremantle, which is planning to launch a channel on Sprint called Fundance in conjunction with Japanese wireless company Index, has found success in culling funny moments from its vast library. Fremantle also is working with third-party producers, including online animator Jibjab, and experimenting with original productions.

“I think we shouldn’t try too hard to reinvent the wheel,” Gers says. “You have to be flexible if you want to succeed. It’s too early to tell what will work.”

Europe-based U-Turn is betting on local content as a way to grow the market. The company helped Madison, Wis., TV station WISC-TV launch Wisconsin Mobile in September. The service accepts ads and offers free news and weather updates and gets promoted on air during newscasts and on the station’s Web site.

“Free local content will get people used to looking to their mobile phones for content,” says Izzy Abbass, president of U-Turn North America. “Once they’re on there, they’re going to go on to the national networks and look for the other stuff.”

In order to fully optimize the opportunities offered by emerging platforms, Carter says a paradigm shift is key.

“If I think about content for new platforms over the next five years and its relationship to television, development teams are going to have to understand that we are looking for 360-degree content.

“It’s not just about pushing television down a different kind of pipe; it’s about a fundamentally different kind of television. I suspect one of the end plays will be the collapse of all windows so every platform will be serviced simultaneously. That will profoundly shift the business model.

“And as a hard-headed commercial person, I don’t see a contradiction of what I am talking about coexisting with good entertainment and making money.”

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