In a move aimed at accelerating the introduction of mobile DTV, NBC and Fox O&Os and affiliates in at least 20 markets are promising today to broadcast at least two channels of free, ad-supported programming on the mobile platform by the end of 2011.
The effort is being led by the Mobile Content Venture, the joint venture of NBC, Fox and 10 major TV station groups that was formed earlier this year to develop and exploit the broadcasting-based mobile DTV technology.
“The good news…is that we are finally getting going,” said Erik Moreno, co-general manager of MCV and a Fox executive, in an interview with TVNewsCheck yesterday evening.
“We think this [announcement] will unleash a significant amount of pent-up energy, a desire to invest and participate broadly across the ecosystem, from the broadcasters to the OEMs to the content owners and eventually, frankly, to the consumers, who hopefully will love this product.”
The 20 markets include 13 of the top 15 and will cover 40% of the population. The markets: New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Philadelphia; San Francisco; Dallas; Washington; Atlanta; Houston; Detroit; Tampa; Phoenix; Minneapolis; Orlando; Portland, Ore.; Cincinnati; Greenville, S.C.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Knoxville, Tenn.
In addition to NBC and Fox O&Os, other groups involved in the 20-market roll out include Cox, Gannett, Post-Newsweek, Media General, Meredith, Belo, Raycom, Hearst and Scripps. All are partners in MCV.
To get the 40 signals on the air, said Salil Dalvi, the other co-general manager of MCV and an NBC Universal executive, the participating broadcasters are making a significant investment in their stations.
It’s “real money ahead of a revenue model and ahead of a real business,” he said, but it’s needed to get mobile DTV off the ground. He declined to discuss the size of the investment.
Dalvi pointed out that the 40 channels were just the start. “We expect that number to grow fairly sizably, fairly quickly,” he said. But to get things moving, he added, “We wanted to may sure that we were vocal about what we were doing sooner rather than later.”
The programming will be advertiser-supported and free to consumers, but what that programming will be is still something of a mystery.
Neither Moreno nor Salil Dalvi would discuss the programming. “We will make more specific comments about our content in the coming months,” said Dalvi.
According to industry sources familiar with the situation, MVC expects the programming will be simulcasts of the stations’ conventional broadcast service, but that neither Fox nor NBC has gotten all the clearances they need from the holders of network programming copyrights, including the National Football League.
In fact, according to some industry sources, the real significance of the MVC announcement today is that it marks a commitment by NBC and Fox to clear the mobile rights to their programming so that all their O&Os and affiliates can air it on the mobile platform.
Mobile DTV is broadcast TV’s entry into mobile video. Using on a standard developed by the Advanced Television Systems Committee and a small portion of their digital channels, TV stations have demonstrated in trials that they can broadcast full-motion video to smart phones and other mobile devices even in moving cars. The devices must, of course, contain mobile DTV receivers.
NBC and Fox have been leaders in trying to bring the technology to market through the MCV.
Smaller broadcasters interested in mobile DTV have coalesced into the Mobile500 Alliance. Now representing some 40 groups with more than 400 stations, it’s headed by Colleen Brown, CEO of Fisher Communications, and Executive Director John Lawson.
Dalvi and Salil said the MCV wants to work with the Mobile500 and is actively involved in discussions with its members.
“A lot of Fox and NBC affiliates are in the Mobile500 group,” said Moreno. “Ultimately, the two groups are committed to being able to make this offering available to consumers…in a completely compatible and seamless way.”
Between the stations of MCV and the Mobile500, the mobile DTV service would cover virtually all of the United States.
In an e-mail received last night, Lawson of the Mobile500 applauded the MCV initiative. “Upgrading local stations and bringing network and other content to the Mobile DTV platform are important milestones in the continued roll out of this service,” he said.
“Only mobile DTV from broadcasters can bring real TV — live, local, and complete — to people on the go. MCV’s commitment to scale up this service to 20 major markets is very good news for American consumers.
Lawson also confirmed that MCV and the Mobile500 were talking. “We look forward to future industry announcements as the roll out of Mobile DTV gains momentum.”
NBC and Fox had originally envisioned mobile DTV as a pay service, but, according to Dalvi, they have come to see the wisdom of offering it as a free, advertiser-supported service — at least initially.
A free service would speed consumer acceptance and encourage the manufacture of devices able to receive the service, Dalvi said. “We recognize that this is a product that is going to have zero subscribers, zero users on day one.
“One of the key elements of the ecosystem is to get going with devices,” said Dalvi. “The best catalyst for doing that was to make content available at no direct cost to the consumer other than the device itself… so that [they] have that opportunity…to sample the product and get accustomed to consuming the content on the platform.”
Despite the initial commitment to a free service, NBC and Fox are insisting that the service be offered with a conditional access system so that they can keep open the option of one day moving to a pay format for some or all of the programming.
“We want to be able to have flexibility in the business model,” said Dalvi. “Today, it’s free. I’m not sure what the catalytic event will be to turn it into a pay service.”
Dalvi denied reports that the MCV was developing a propriety conditional access system that would lock out other broadcasters who want to offer mobile service independent of MCV.
“We are planning to do a conditional access framework that is software-based and standards-based and we are working very closely with the OMVC to figure out the right approach that’s going to be compatible with broad range of other broadcasters,” Dalvi said.
“This is very much intended to be an open conditional access approach.”
The OMVC is the Open Mobile Video Coalition, a consortium of broadcasters who worked on the development of the mobile DTV standard and organized technical and market trials. It continues to promote the service, particularly among device manufacturers.
The other component of the mobile DTV platform, which Dalvi called “absolutely critical,” is a means for identifying who is watching the programming and tracking what he or she is watching and for how long. “You can expect that there will be robust measurement and reporting capability when this launches,” Dalvi said.
But just how that will be accomplished is unsettled, he said. “There are multiple research capabilities out there in the marketplace today. We’ve seen it done well; we’ve seen it done not so well. We are very actively discussing how measurement fits into the product with some of the likely suspects in the marketplace today.”
The formal MVC announcement, which is expected later today, is also intended to demonstrate that broadcasting has a place in the mobile future and, perhaps, slow the FCC’s plan to reallocate as much spectrum as it can from broadcasting to wireless broadband.
According to Moreno, the FCC needs to recognize that broadcasting is “exactly complementary” to wireless broadband in the delivery of video. “If you wanted to deliver very popular content in a scalable fashion, you would be building a broadcast-based network,” he said.
“There is broad consensus within the various communities that the broadcast solution is the only way to be able to make content available on mobile devices,” he said. “IP-based networks won’t scale; it will never happen.”