Mobile TV is not your folks' TV

The intersection of two of the 20th century's most transforming technologies — the mobile phone and television — doesn’t mean that mobile TV is TV.

While the end product is a TV-like moving picture, that's where the similarity ends. If we look back to the advent of mass-market television in the 1940s, the model of moving-picture entertainment was movies, and for home entertainment was radio. But once the moving picture moved into the living room, the medium quickly developed its own forms and customary uses.

Television is more intimate and casual than movies; remember, it was the replacement for the big radio in the living room, which itself replaced story-telling and reading aloud around the fireplace. It was a large stationary piece of furniture that whole families watched in groups at set times. When a choice of channels became available, whole families fought over which program to watch as a group. And television was, and still is, irremediably connected to the couch, casual clothing and kicking back. Those dynamics gave birth to new dramatic forms and news program formats.

Mobile TV is a horse of another color. It’s on the go, dressed for public contact and associated with public venues — the seats in vehicles and workplaces, and all the spaces in between. It’s the medium of public spaces and nooks, and cracks and crannies in time; it’s spontaneous, not planned; it’s opportunistic, not routine; it’s two way, not one way; it’s portable, not stationary; it’s active, not passive.

As the technical difficulties presented by the mobile TV device as a receiver dissolve, its space and place in our culture will bloom its own forms of production, delivery, content and consumption that will look very different than the ecosystem that surrounds conventional television.

The user experience will also mix up content from many sources — Web, broadcast, on-demand, pay-per-view, music, chat, shopping — and the experience and behavior it fosters will look very different from television’s passive viewing model.

Viewers' idea of what should come out of a mobile TV will be shaped by what they expect the mobile device to do, and what they do with it. And they just don’t think about mobile TV as a television first, but as a phone, computer, a thing that reaches out and connects to a multiplicity of interactive networks. It’s something you use, not something you watch or listen to. It’s something you call things up on — people, information, and entertainment.

We turned on the radio and listened, and we expected to turn on the television and listen and watch. We pick up a phone to communicate — and increasingly, to write notes, find things, listen to music and buy things. So, too, we’ll hit the TV button on the handset and expect to interact in some way. For the generations growing up today, content is content is content. It would surprise them not to be able to get anything and everything on whatever device is in their hands.

None of this should be surprising a century after the invention of the telephone, radio, movies and television. But industry experts suffer from the same myopia as National Broadcasting Company President M.H. Aylesworth 80 years ago. In a February 5, 1928, “New York Times” story, “Radio Pictures for the Home,” Aylesworth opined that the value proposition of "illustrated radio" (aka television) would be allowing "our vast radio audience to see the artists who broadcast, just before or after the broadcast." He sure got that right, didn't he?