Who Has Mobile DTV Rights?

RANCHO MIRAGE, CALIF.: Mobile DTV is more than merely a simple matter of putting an ATSC M/H signal on the air, said Bob Allen, executive vice president and general manager of KESQ-TV in Palm Springs. There’s a question of rights.

Allen, participating on a panel discussion at the HPA Tech Retreat, had been asked about licensing deals with carriers like Comcast, services such as its online Fancast platform and Hulu.com. He said that entertainment content on the network was treated as a separate entity for which the stations don’t negotiate alternative platform distribution rights.

CBS’s Robert Seidel, on the same panel, piped up and said, “or the mobile rights.”

“That’s right,” Allen responded. Mobile DTV was not just about creating the signal.

Mobile DTV has been in development for two years, much of it under the auspices of the Open Mobile Video Coalition, a group of 800 broadcasters and manufacturers aiming to launch the service. Broadcasters were focused on the DTV transition during much of that two-year period before it finally concluded last June. Now, the push to launch mobile, over-the-air DTV is in full swing, with a 20-station beta commercial launch in Washington, D.C. expected to happen in the spring.

Mobile DTV represents another potential revenue stream for broadcasters, who’ve long been locked into on-air advertising as the sole source of their income. The single-stream model proved nearly disastrous last year when the auto industry imploded and slashed its massive TV spending. Online platforms generate minimal revenues compared to TV, and retransmission consent, while helpful, is also controversial and reliant on regulations.

Meanwhile, spending on mobile platforms is the next big growth category for advertising according to media researchers. The Kelsey Group in Princeton, N.J. pegs it at $3.1 billion within three years, compared to $160 million for 2008. That prognostication was put forth last March, when 63 TV stations anticipated going mobile by the end of 2009. As of earlier this month, there were yet only 30.

Part of the reason is the lack of reception devices on the market. One engineer transmitting ATSC M/H in Los Angeles couldn’t even get a hold of a prototype to test his own signal. But other factors affecting a delay in the roll-out of mobile DTV have to do with the uncertainty surrounding content rights, as well as the fact that most broadcasters have already used up their bit pipe with HD and multicast streams.

“One HD stream at 12 Mbps, two SD multicasts at 3 Mbps each; PSIP and overhead in the remainder of bandwidth,” one station engineer writes. “Done, finished, no more room for mobile DTV.”

Those 3 Mbps multicast streams are at least starting to provide some revenues, and many TV stations have contracted carriage for third-party diginets like This TV and RTN. It’s not like swapping out the static weather map to do an ATSC M/H feed. Affiliates need to know what the networks expect, and whether they even want stations to do mobile DTV, before multicast diginet deals get done.

As 20 TV stations in Washington, D.C. prepare for a commercial beta launch of mobile DTV this spring, others are on hold.

“We are fishing to try to get an understanding of whether or not we are wasting our time on mobile DTV,” an affiliate executive said.
-- Deborah D. McAdams