The much-hyped era of television available anytime, anywhere is quickly becoming an eyeball grab of major proportions — on the Internet as well as on wireless devices.
In the Internet TV wars, the CBS Television network has passed a new benchmark. It has released a new application for Apple’s popular iPhone that allows users to watch episodes of its network programming on the go.
The iPhone application uses CBS’ TV.com Web site to play full episodes of TV series such as “CSI”, “Dream On,” “Night Gallery” and the original “Star Trek.” The free application appears to be the first with a significant amount of network content where users can watch full episodes over both the 3G cellular network and Wi-Fi.
Hulu, the rival video site owned by NBC and Fox, releases its content so far only for computers connected to the Web site over the Internet. But there have also been some limited experiments for the iPhone. Joost, for example, allows limited episodes to be played on the iPhone. NBC once allowed iPhone viewing of some shows from a special Web site. YouTube, which just reported 1 million users of its site in the month of January, has been on the iPhone from the beginning.
Hulu recently blocked Boxee, a New York startup, from streaming its content to other Internet connected devices. Rumors are that Slingplayer, another extender of television programs to devices over the Internet, may introduce its own application for the iPhone. Even Hulu is rumored to be working on an iPhone app.
For mobile wireless carriers looking to supply a growing number of portable devices entering the marketplace, these developments carry huge implications.
Under net neutrality restrictions supported by the Obama administration, mobile carriers could not distinguish between types of content. Transmission of a television program would be treated the same as an e-mail or a voice conversation.
Companies like Qualcomm, however, have developed special networks like MediaFlo for watching video on mobile phones. It uses abandoned analog broadcast spectrum to transmit the programming around the phone network, thus alleviating stress on wireless networks. Qualcomm and the carrier charge extra for this service. If one can watch network programming on an iPhone, why pay for a service like MediaFlo?
The success of free television over mobile services could force the carriers to consider how they price their data services and whether they continue to offer unlimited bandwidth to all users.
Then there are the traditional over-the-air broadcasters. The Open Mobile Video Coalition is pushing an ATSC M/H mobile video standard for wireless mobile. So far, the broadcasters have announced no wireless carriers willing to sell a compatible phone.
If the television networks are going straight to mobile, however, what programming will the local broadcasters offer over their wireless video? And how will they offer it?
What about syndicators? Will they create applications to stream their programming directly to devices such as the iPhone? Or will they form new networks that package programming specifically for mobile television? There are many questions but few answers have emerged thus far.
For now, the big four networks have the national branding and mass audience programming to offer their network fare direct to mobile users through a single, free application.
Though the networks might be hesitant to cut out their affiliate stations as they move to mobile, they are not expected to hesitate entering this new territory. Most are more afraid of falling behind the new generation of rivals and losing potential audience in a new world where television in all its forms is pushing new boundaries by the day.