What’s Your Mobile Strategy?

At the 2006-2007 upfront TV sales presentations, “multi-platform” was the big topic. Each network showcased their latest efforts to capture both viewer attention, and a larger share of the ad dollars that are migrating to the online world.

NBC now has TV 360, with original program-related content that can be accessed on a multitude of electronic devices. CBS is partnering with AOL to embed clues online and on-air to help viewers search for $2 million in gold for Mark Burnett’s new online project, Gold Rush. ABC has streamed full episodes of Lost, Desperate Housewives and other programs online for free. Fox has been presenting its young adult demo reach to agencies in an initiative entitled Generation Fox. No matter where you look at the network level, someone’s looking to leverage the combination of content, consumers, computers and commercials for financial gain.

So where does that leave you, out there at the local level? Most stations by now are selling online sponsorships of news content, including streaming video and podcasts. Sales projects have an online component, and many are experimenting with VOD and multicasting.

Other stations are embracing “the third screen”: mobile devices. While largely referring to cellular phones and video-enabled iPods, the term has the potential to include a wide variety of portable electronic devices in the future. If your station does not have a mobile strategy today, consider this to be your guide to what is currently available, how you can reach them, and what could be coming in the future.

The cellular telephone industry’s leading players, serving over 213 million U.S. customers, are Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Sprint/Nextel, T-Mobile, Alltel and U.S. Cellular. There are others, of course, but let’s focus on those that are enabling local TV stations to tie-in with their platform.

The leading providers of mobile content solutions to the broadcast TV industry are (in alphabetical order):

  • LSN (Local Solutions Network), based in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • NOW (News Over Wireless) from Capitol Broadcasting Co.’s New Media Group.
  • WNI Network (Weather News Inc.) from Weathernews Americas, Inc.

The primary differences:

  • LSN works with stations to distribute content that is free to consumers.
  • NOW and WNI are paid services, with the station receiving a share of the subscription fee, which can range from $2.99 to $4.99 per month.

Each service can take your station’s existing text and graphic content, and reformat it based upon each wireless carrier’s tech specs. For example, NOW creates a WAP application for use on the Verizon network, but Sprint customers instead download a JAVA application. Technical considerations aside, these services each enable TV stations to capture viewers on the go, all while presenting an advertiser’s message in a “Sponsored by...” format on the welcome screen.

On the mobile video front, 25 stations have aligned with NOW’s recently-launched My Local TV, which offers video newscasts to Sprint Power Vision subscribers. Expect that concept to evolve—but remember, today’s technology has its limitations.

Here’s why. There are two basic ways to deliver video to a cell phone: existing 2.5G or 3G networks, or by transmitting it on a special broadcast channel. On the cellular side, current network capacity limits both the quantity and quality of streaming or downloaded video on 3G networks. That’s why the creation of a pair of mobile TV systems (Crown Castle’s Modeo, and Qualcomm’s MediaFLO) is underway.

You might think, “Wait a minute! I just spent a couple million bucks to go digital! Why can’t these fancy cell phones pick up my digitally-transmitted 6 o’clock news?” The three-part answer:

  • Antennas (a long one is needed. No one wants a 2-foot metal wand sticking out of their shirt pocket.)
  • Power Consumption (My phone is going to die after 20 minutes of use? No thanks.)
  • Inability to receive a reliable signal when in motion (no wonder Sinclair was so adamant about COFDM modulation, vs. the 8-VSB digital modulation standard adopted by the FCC).

While editor Michael Silbergleid’s commentary in the May 2006 issue of Television Broadcast addressed the potential of A-VSB as a mobile television transmission/ reception solution, it’s years away from being an option for actually generating revenue for your station.

The decision to move forward and execute a mobile strategy is more than just a 2006 dollars and cents issue. Is it inevitable that a large number of consumers will embrace your content on a small screen? No one knows for sure, but some pretty big companies are investing dollars, and saying they will.

Ask yourself this question: what was your market’s PUT at 6 p.m. among Adults 18-34 during the most recent sweeps period? What was your share of those viewers? How do those numbers compare to five years ago? Are those numbers growing, or declining? What are you doing to capture the attention of this generation of consumers?

Furthermore, your ability to repurpose news images is not exclusive. Why are newspapers ramping up their internal video production efforts? I can assure you, it’s not just so they can show bloopers at their annual holiday party, like TV stations do.

If you’re concerned about cellular handset capabilities for these fancy new services, think about this: two years ago, I bought my first Treo 600. A bleeding-edge early adopter, in my circles I was the sole possessor of the device that had the telltale Treo ring tone.

Now, ten heads in a room glance simultaneously at their belt or shirt pocket in a Pavlovian response to that same sound! What was once rare is now common. Prices are dropping as technology evolves. Wireless carriers will subsidize the cost of new phones in exchange for multi-year service contracts, especially if they are accompanied by the purchase of a new mobile TV tier.

2006 is the year to build relationships, experiment and learn from the experience...all while making money today. These services offer stations the ability to offer a convergence package that is exclusive to one sponsor. Go ahead—position it to sponsors as “The brand in the hand!” It’s up to you how you package and price it. The time to start is now.

Jeffrey Ulrich is the new business development manager at WHEC, Rochester, NY. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of HBI, Inc. He can be reached through his website, www.hidefjeff.com, or at julrich@news10nbc.com.