Mobile Skepticism

I have mobile skepticism. I’ve had it since MobiTV went live a few years ago. I still doubt that handset video will save the world, or even the broadcast industry.

Such as it is.

Mobile video is tiny TV, for the most part. The majority of content is repurposed from TV networks. Repurposing has been the tail-eating dog of media since newspapers started posting stories.

Bye-bye, newspapers.

Mobile distribution has not yet similarly cannibalized traditional, fixed TV. In fact, TV viewing time has continued to increase even as new distribution platforms are launched. But all things are not equal.

Mobile video debuted too soon. Early data network distribution was underwhelming. Buffer times conjured dial-up modems. Carriers did not provide churn rates, though they likely were high after that first free trial month.

Disposable income is another factor. It hasn’t kept pace with the typical cost increases associated with maintaining a household. Ten bucks a month for slow-loading video isn’t exactly compelling. Especially from a service provider that tacks on a page full of mystery charges to your three-figure “one bill.”

The economics of mobile remain constrained in Korea, where it launched much earlier. People polled in the United States have expressed interest in the service as long as it’s free. That may or may not ultimately be a factor. The fact that broadcasters can provide mobile DTV for free is their one apparent advantage—unless fixed reception is any indication. Around 80 percent of Americans pay for TV at home when they can get it for free.

However, paid-for TV is about purchasing content. Mobile TV, on the other hand, is about repurchasing repurposed content on another platform. People have so far been somewhat indifferent to the concept. Growth of wireless broadband and the growing availability of mobile Web access will only fuel disinterest.

Yet free could still be a carrot, if there’s a reason to watch mobile TV; one that is unique to the platform. A content offering not yet discovered, but more than likely being imagined even now by a 16-year-old skateboarder.

It’s feasible for mobile DTV to break out for broadcasters if they debut an app so unusual as to be revolutionary, then market the dickens out of it. Like, ahem, Apple. Otherwise, it may just be another unfortunately wasted multicast populated with news clips, weather maps and reruns—or worse, a reason to watch TV.

The second scenario seems unlikely at this point, because, again, people continue to leave the TV on longer and longer. But the mobile video generation is watching TV and mom and dad’s. When the folks finally downsize to the condo in Boca, what’s left is the handset that people younger than 40 cannot live without. Broadcasters can have a substantial piece of that as long as they act rather than react.