Who says broadcast TV has to be viewed on a TV set?
Cell phones, laptop computers and other mobile devices are about to become the next frontier in digital TV in the U.S. as local stations begin to harness the capability to beam out a special signal that can be received by these devices over the air.
The technology is already there to turn cell phones into portable TVs. The last hurdle the biz has to overcome is coordinating the interests of the key constituencies — broadcasters, content owners, portable device manufacturers and wireless carriers — to develop a business model for mobile DTV. Broadcasters are pushing for an ad-supported free service similar to what they already serve up on their mothership channels.
Gannett Broadcasting prexy Dave Lougee foresees a world where travelers waiting in an airport lounge will watch the Masters golf tourney live on their laptops, or homemakers who have to dash out to the grocery store won’t miss the last 10 minutes of Oprah because they can catch the end of show on their cell phones.
The development of mobile DTV began in earnest during the National Assn. of Broadcasters confab in 2007, when a group of broadcasters and equipment vendors proposed development of tech standards. The group grew into the 800-station-member Open Mobile Video Coalition and its work has yielded the standard backed by the Advanced Television Systems Committee.
Seven Washington, D.C., TV stations — including Gannett’s WUSA, NBC’s WRC, Fox’s WDCA and PBS’ WHUT — are testing the system by simulcasting their over-the-air signals to early prototype receivers, including the mobile phone of coalition exec director Anne Schelle.
“It’s a compelling platform,” says Schelle, who is able to watch everything those stations air wherever she happens to be in the Washington area. She adds that once the standard is formally adopted later this year by the ATSC, some 70 TV stations across the U.S. will start making their signals available to people on the go.
These mobile DTV transmissions would emanate from broadcast towers and co-exist as a separate service from the voice, text and image communications going through the cell phone facilities of major carriers like Sprint, AT&T and Verizon.
The key to making it all possible is a tuner on a chip that many hope will become standard equipment for mobile devices.
“It can go into everything from mobile handsets to DVD players for auto backseat viewing,” says John Taylor, veep of handset maker LG Electronics. While there are few obstacles to installing such a chip on nonphone devices, its installation on handsets would have to be approved by the carriers, who have been mostly mum on this topic.
Manufacturers like Dell will put TV tuners in PCs; others will place them in auto entertainment systems.
The fast-track development and approval process was no doubt spurred by the increasingly dire financial straits many TV station groups are grappling with as the recession tears away at the pillars of local advertising, including auto dealerships and department stores. Broadcasters who have recently filed or may file for bankruptcy include Tribune Co., Freedom Communications, Pappas Telecasting, Ion Media, Young Broadcasting and Sinclair Broadcast Group. Others like Gannett and Media General have dealt with the pain by ordering furloughs.
The great hope among stations is that extending their programming to more viewers via mobile DTV will generate additional revenue. However, the challenge is magnified by the prolonged local TV ad slump and the thicket of rights issues that have to be sorted out with content owners.
For programs that local stations produce, such as news, sports, weather and talk, there’s no issue. But no one has yet addressed how they’ll handle syndicated or network programming, where ownership rights are more complicated. A number of major syndie distribs declined to comment on the matter.
“The rights to watch content on new platforms have to be specifically granted,” says one TV executive. “I don’t anticipate enormous problems, especially at launch, in getting copyright holders to make the content available for this platform. The only dicey ones are the big (national) sports outfits.”
Coalition prexy Brandon Burgess acknowledges that rights are “a murky subject.” Burgess, who is also CEO of Ion Media Networks, which owns 59 stations and operates the Ion network, has been a major force in pushing broadcasters to embrace the potential of mobile DTV.
“When you think of it, mobile DTV is just another broadcast,” Burgess says. “If I take my TV with rabbit ears to my backyard, is that a different transmission? The way I’ve tried to counsel networks and stations on this is to say, look, you can fight over the pie once we build the pie and demonstrate the revenue. If it makes the broadcast more valuable, people can then figure out how that incremental revenue gets shared.”
Most broadcasters think the new service needs to be advertiser-supported. They see it as a simple extension of their traditional over-the-air offerings. And they point to the lack of traction for telco-driven services that charge subscription fees for users to turn their mobile devices into portable TVs.
“Ads will be an important aspect of the launch,” says NBC Networks prexy John Eck, who’s also an executive committee member of the video coalition.
“We need to get this capability out to as many people as possible, and we’ve learned from others that charging people a high price to see content on the go gives them pause,” he says.
Eck didn’t elaborate, but his words could apply to Flo TV, the $15-per-month subscription service from Qualcomm, which has been up and running for more than a year and won’t disclose how many subscribers it has.
Like the coalition-proposed mobile DTV service, Flo TV’s content reaches mobile phones via over-the-air broadcast signals rather than cell phone technology. The difference: It is a nationally distributed service, not a local one.
Through deals with the carriers, Flo TV is available to customers of AT&T and Verizon Wireless equipped with certain handsets. It has licensing deals for selected content from cablers including ESPN, Comedy Central, Fox News and MSNBC. One of its most popular programs is the Sony Pictures TV-produced daytime mainstay “The Young and the Restless.”
The CBS sudser causes a “viewer spike every times it comes on,” says Qualcomm senior veep Jonathan Barzilay. “People watch it all the way through.”
Free over-the-air mobile DTV is still not ready for primetime. But there’s strong evidence from international markets where mobile TV is established that there will be a demand for the service, if it is free and readily available. That means getting all of the stakeholders in the U.S. TV biz to find common ground on how to present the latest iteration of the smallscreen to a country where more than 270 million cell phones are operating.
“Mobile DTV will involve working with all the players in the ecosystem,” Gannett’s Lougee says. “We’re taking a position that it’s going to be in all of our mutual interests to work together.”