Is mobile DTV God’s gift to broadcasters’ or an unproven, faith-based initiative? After listening to experts and roaming the halls at NAB, I find much reason for optimism, but no shortage of unanswered questions.
A large audience at this week’s NAB Show got a taste of that Old Time Religion at a breakfast session with leaders of the Open Mobile Video Coalition.
The program was a tightly-produced pitch designed to drum up still more broadcaster support for the digital technology that OMVC Chairman Brandon Burgess hails as broadcasters’ best chance to recapture lost revenues by “reassembling segments of the audience that have been lost to digital attrition.”
The various speakers held up manufacturer prototypes of mobile TV-enabled devices and praised the new medium’s crystal clear reception, its rock-solid ATSC standard, the millions of new viewing locations and its lucrative interactive components, then announced plans to roll out actual consumer mobile DTV service in Atlanta, Seattle and Washington.
About the only thing missing was a gospel choir and a fired-up preacher shouting “Do you be-LIEVE?”
Well, as a matter of fact, I do.
For the most part, the OMVC and the ATSC have been diligent and transparent about their successes and (few) setbacks and have provided a substantial rationale for their optimism. And I’m hardly alone.
At another NAB session on multiplatform ad revenue, BIAfn Chief Strategy Officer Rick Ducey estimates that by 2013 the U.S. mobile advertising market will grow to $3.3 billion and that mobile DTV will give broadcasters exclusive control over 33 percent of that.
Obviously, for an industry plagued by dire predictions, this is great news.
But I must confess that my faith is not pure, and from time to time the doubts take hold.
I still remember the market failure of the original videodisc, the death throes of most local programming and the rapid rise and fall of video on Internet 1.0.
But given all the expert support for mobile DTV, what could possibly go wrong? The producer in me can’t overlook all those unchecked items on the OMVC to-do list. Here are the top four categories:
Greed — Because cell phone carriers distribute the vast majority of handsets, they determine what features go in or don’t. If they perceive mobile DTV as a threat to their budding subscription video services they may demand vigorish before a significant number of ATSC ready handsets can hit the market.
OMVC insider and NBC President John Eck says initial conversations with carriers “have been received cordially,” and “we’re are still working on a business model” — the same thing the OMVC said a year ago. That means that there is still no deal.
Stupidity — Closely related to greed, but, unlike its avaricious cousin, it’s impervious to logic. A prime example: the Hollywood craft unions.
The fact that no significant broadband video profits exist or will exist during their current contract didn’t deter the Writer’s Guild from striking. Nor did it prevent the nearly year-long standoff by those talented but suicidally-stupid hardliners in the Screen Actor’s Guild. If these same guys get a premature hankering for hypothetical mobile DTV money, things could get slow and expensive.
Untested Assumptions — Even the most thorough pre-testing can’t anticipate and simulate all the possible variables that arise when ordinary consumers start using a new technology. When broadcasters launch real world mobile service in those three markets, it’s a sure bet we will all learn a lot. We can only hope the lessons are painless.
Similarly, while OMVC is confident that it’s both simple and affordable for a station to start mobile DTV service, we won’t know all the problems until dozens of stations power it up. And only time will tell whether the present economy will delay stations’ plans to launch mobile DTV in the next two years.
Technology analyst Gary Arlen, among others, says that advertiser acceptance of mobile DTV depends on the rapid development of a reliable metric for measuring viewers and demographics. (This is a slam dunk if the carriers agree to play ball: cell phones can gather and store reams of consumer data, and even provide GPS-based locations for geo-tagged promotions.)
Audience Acceptance — For years now, the OMVC and its allies have extolled the “obvious” appeal of crystal-clear “regular TV” in so many convenient new locations. This sounds good to me, but the truth is we don’t know. Remember, “regular TV” bombed in supermarkets, airports and waiting rooms, resulting in the rise of numerous moderately-successful specialty video services.
At the NAB’s multiplatform ad revenue panel, Christine DiStadio, emphasized the importance of starting soon to experiment with a range of mobile technologies. As director of digital media for Belo’s KHOU Houston, she believes that mobile polling, sponsored text and SMS messages, and mobile search will all converge into a revenue bonanza in which mobile DTV will play a central role.
But DiStadio and other panelists were also realistic about limited staff and production time — an important reason they’ve selected the Verve Wireless mobile publishing platform and MojoPages, a consumer rating service with special appeal for small and medium-size advertisers.
Both services are designed to minimize the workload for the station itself — a crucial consideration, says DiStadio. But most stations would envy KHOU’s “limited” resources. Some stations just don’t have the personnel to do anything more than simulcast the main signal. It may be several years before medium- and small-market stations feel confident investing in original mobile content.
You can probably add some cautious questions of your own. In fact I can’t resist adding a fifth, bonus category. Let’s call it “Nobody Knows Anything,” in honor of the phrase made famous by screenwriter William Goldman when describing the craziness of Hollywood.
Not long ago OMVC Executive Director Anne Schelle, a veteran of the cell phone industry, described to me the excitement and publicity that surrounded the launch of the first digital cellular networks and the exciting new services they promised.
But nobody spoke a word about text messaging. The manufacturers and carriers had barely a clue that this was a desirable feature, much less that it would become, by far, the most popular and lucrative mobile service.
And it costs the carriers virtually nothing to charge those high rates.
In other words, although we may be surprised when mobile DTV finally rolls out, it could very well be a happy surprise — something much easier and more lucrative than we now imagine.
Arthur Greeenwald is a contributing editor of TVNewsCheck and writes the Market Share column that appears every Monday.