FALLS CHURCH, VA.
For several years now, there’s been a lot of buzz about U.S. next-gen television delivery. It’s a frequent technical topic at engineering symposiums and no self-respecting cell phone store would be without models that salespeople claim are specially geared for mobile TV applications.
Some in the industry will say that handheld video devices are the very future of television itself. Others caution about the need to stay focused on delivering DTV to conventional viewing environments by the February 2009 deadline.
Last year saw the establishment of the Open Mobile Video Coalition, an organization dedicated to the development of mobile television. Coalition membership has leapfrogged, and by year’s end included 19 major television groups, with approximately 800 television stations represented. Its targeted group includes anyone with access to a video-capable cell phone, portable game player, in-car entertainment device, laptop computer, or personal media player.
It’s obvious that with this many players on the bandwagon, members are quite serious about the future of small screen delivery. Nat Ostroff, vice president of new technology at the Sinclair Broadcast Group is one of these.
| Nat Ostroff, vice president of new technology, Sinclair Broadcast Group|
“A generation from now, people will be amazed that broadcasters once only just transmitted a signal to living rooms,” said Ostroff. “I see all sorts of opportunities for digital mobile TV.”
SMALL SCREEN HURDLES
However, Ostroff is quick to admit that there are some matters that have to be addressed before there’s a full blown rollout of the technology and universal acceptance.
“There are really two hurdles that we have to jump over,” Ostroff said. “The first is that we need a single mobile broadcast standard, not a Blu-ray/HD DVD standards battle. We have to get past company standards and come up with a single consolidated standard. I think this is going to happen. I’m very optimistic that it will. It appears that both technologies—LG and Samsung—seem quite robust in terms of delivering mobile video for broadcasters. Each has individual nuances and we will have to get these ironed out into a single standard.
“The second hurdle is a little more obscure. Maybe I can paraphrase that old commercial for Wendy’s, ‘where’s the beef?” Broadcasters are asking ‘where’s the revenue stream—where’s the payback for broadcasters to transmit the mobile stream?”
Ostroff says that there is no universal answer for this aspect of digital mobile video just yet.
“I think that there will be various experiments—financial business model experiments—before a revenue-producing payback is settled upon,” Ostroff said. “There may be more than one. It could be a subscription service. Broadcasters must be careful not to give away content like they did with cable a number of years ago. It’s hard to take things to a paying stage afterwards.”
Media General Group’s senior vice president of broadcast operations, Ardell Hill, echoes this sentiment.
| Ardell Hill, senior vice president of broadcast operations, Media General|
“We’re not in this to lose money or to break even,” Hill said. “We’re a publicly traded company and our stockholders expect to see a reasonable return on their investment.”
Hill was asked about what sort of startup costs the average broadcaster might expect to face for next-gen delivery.
“Actually the numbers are all over the place,” he said. “It’s certainly not free. Depending on how complex the system is, it might be $100,000 to possibly three or four times that amount. It’s really dependent on the kinds of services you plan to launch.”
When asked about a possible startup date for Media General stations, Hill felt that it was too early to call just yet. However, he did anticipate that things would be in readiness by the time high-power analog television ends in 2009.
“Some assumptions have to be made,” he said. “First, there has to be equipment hardware applications in place on both sides—transmission and consumer. And there have to be services to capture the interest of the consumer. I think that these priorities go hand in hand.”
He said that while readying stations for the 2009 digital deadline is keeping a lot of people busy, next-gen delivery shouldn’t be neglected.
“This is an exciting new venue to provide consumers with television,” said Hill. “The door is wide open for all kinds of services.”
ON THE GROUND FLOOR
Jimmy Goodmon, vice president and general manager of ’Capitol Broadcasting Company’s New Media Group, in Raleigh, N.C. said his company is, and has been, very big on new opportunities for content delivery. They opted about two and a half years ago to start up delivery to cell phone screens, but didn’t want to wait for implementation of RF delivery standards and an off-air service. Instead, CBC elected to work with wireless carriers to take video to the small screen.
| Jimmy Goodmon, vice president and general manager, Capitol Broadcasting Company’s New Media Group|
“We set up News Over Wireless two years ago,” said Goodmon. “We use the News Over Wireless turnkey technology platform to deliver text, images, graphics, animations, and video to cell phones in partnership with the carriers,” said Goodmon. “We’ve gotten very good feedback and the number of subscribers continues to grow.”
News Over Wireless provides two levels of service: a free WAP site that can be viewed using a mobile Web browser, and a premium service available via a paid subscription to cell phone customers. While he wouldn’t reveal subscription service numbers, Goodmon did indicate that the number of “free visits” was running in the hundreds of thousands per month.
When asked about challenges facing early adopters, Goodmon was quick to respond.
“Challenge is probably the wrong word. I see it as more of an opportunity. It does require that you think about what you’re putting out there. What goes for [off-air) television and the Web simply can’t be put on a phone and look right.”
Goodmon explained that different production techniques are necessary in order to convey video via cell phone-sized displays.
“With weather, for instance, we’ll shoot tighter and make the graphics larger,” said Goodmon. “You can do something like a news cut-in without these considerations and it will work OK on mobile screens, but this will not maximize user experience.”
Goodmon offered advice for stations considering next gen delivery avenues.
“There are two roads that a broadcaster can take,” he said. “You can use mobile video strictly as a promotional tool and be willing to put content out there with no ad selling, or you can make it into a true business and create new revenue streams for the station.
“People are going to spend more and more time consuming media via the Internet and via mobile devices. In order to address the future we have shifted the way we think of ourselves. While we used to be just a television station, now we’re a local media company, producing and delivering a variety of content in a variety of ways.”
Goodmon estimates that it could take anywhere between three and five years before such delivery platforms become big revenue producers, but now is the time to get serious about reaching something beyond living room screens.
“It’s like the wild west,” he said. “You need to get out there and stake your ground. A lot of broadcasters woke up to the Web in the past year or two; imagine if they had begun focusing on the Web five to seven years ago? It’s got to be the same perspective with mobile video.”
READYING FOR A ROLLOUT
Ion Media Networks has already read the tea leaves and is staking out some of that territory. According to David A. Glenn, the company’s president of engineering, Ion to date has set up next gen delivery beta test facilities in three markets—New York City, Washington, D.C. and Tampa, Fla.—and is currently evaluating performance in the New York area.
| David A. Glenn, president of engineering, Ion Media Networks|
“We’re working with the Coalition and equipment manufacturers to do testing,” Glenn said. “Ion has offered up spectrum space to do market tests and we’re working closely with ATSC, NAB and MSTV to develop a procedure that will hopefully predict the best technology for broadcasters to use and also to make the best use of the spectrum.”
So far tests have been very encouraging, but some difficulties were noted and addressed.
“A couple of specific receivers had some issues with the mobile component of the 8-VSB stream,” he said. “But with so many manufacturers of ATSC tuners, how far backwardly compatible can you go? Even the original ATSC tuners didn’t always work properly with the 8-VSB signal.”
Glenn added that any reasonably state-of-the-art tuner was free of performance issues.
As to a commercial rollout of mobile service, he reported that Ion is planning implementation to coincide with the 2009 FCC-mandated digital transition.
“It’s a very aggressive program, and we feel the best way to have a successful service is to launch it nationally,” he said. “To be successful, there can be only one system—there’s no place for technology wars. And it has to be user friendly.”
Glenn believes that the sky is the limit for broadcasters who implement mobile service, as there are really no established business models or rule books.
“Each station can elect its own use of the spectrum,” said Glenn. “I see a vast number of services: free-to-air, conditional access, PPV, traffic, weather and more. There’s quite an opportunity for local and national video content. There are opportunities for all of these.”