News yesterday that broadcaster-owned that MetroPCS, the nation’s fifth-largest wireless carrier, will market Mobile Content Venture’s Dyle-branded mobile DTV service with a new Samsung smart phone, gave mobile DTV prospects a needed boost.
And at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next week, broadcasters will attempt to build on whatever momentum mobile DTV got from that announcement with demonstrations and further announcements, while also trying to get a handle on the remarkably fast developments in consumer electronics that shape the media environment in which they operate.
Keeping current with the CE technologies is vital, says Albert Cheng, Disney ABC’s EVP of digital media. “In the last few years, 3D seemed to be the push. I thought the focus should have been Internet-connected TVs. This year I’m looking to see if this is finally going to happen.”
Nielsen’s Scott Brown thinks it will. “The theme at CES this year is likely to be ‘connected everywhere,’ with a strong CE focus on interoperability, mobility, freedom of use and devices that merge — and synchronize — the video experience.”
Broadcasters’ mobile DTV activities at CES will be clustered within the Mobile DTV Tech Zone in the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center.
MCV, comprising NBC, Fox and leading station groups, will demo the mobile app that MetroPCS subscribers will have to download in order to register and decrypt the mobile broadcasts of the MCV-member stations. But it will have only a developmental version of the new Samsung smartphone with its “discrete” telescoping antenna.
MCV is now promising to launch its service “later this year” with multiple 24-hour channels containing some Fox and NBC programming along with local programming from participating affiliates and O&Os. And it has promised further announcements at CES involving other pieces of the mobile DTV ecosystem.
MCV is still working to clear mobile rights and cut additional marketing deals with carriers and their associated device makers. But one thing that appears under control in the availability of mobile DTV signals. It now has more than 72 participating stations in 32 markets covering more than half the population of the U.S.
The Mobile500 Alliance, the other mobile DTV venture, whose partners include the Sinclair, Hubbard and Fisher station groups), will unveil in the Tech Zone its own branded mobile receiver, an external dongle that plugs into the data port of an iPhone or iPad.
The dongle and associated app were developed by a trio of international tech partners: The content server, ad placement, service guide and audience measurement comes from Expway. The interface and DVR capability is built by the German firm Elgato, well-known for its Macintosh-based consumer EyeTV products. Custom receiver chips are provided by the Israeli firm Siano Mobile Silicon.
Unlike MCV’s Samsung smartphone, the Mobile500 dongle-app combo will feature a virtual DVR, allowing users to record programming for later playback.
While a partnership with a wireless carrier and smartphone vendor is ultimately preferable, “we felt it was a priority to provide our stations with a way to monetize mobile DTV right now,” says Mobile500 Executive Director John Lawson, adding that “high-level talks with a major telecom provider are ongoing.”
This will be the fourth CES at which mobile DTV is more promise than reality. Mobile500’s Lawson attributes the slow pace to the reluctance of private and strategic investors to back a new broadcast-based technology in the present economy, especially following the very public collapse of Qualcomm’s Flo TV.
“Now is certainly the time for mobile DTV to take off,” says Nielsen’s Brown. “Otherwise, [broadcasters] risk being marginalized by other technologies such as tablets.”
There are other ways for broadcasters to offer mobile video as Fisher Communications will show at CES. Its KOMO News Premium App is intended as an “end-to-end solution for monetizing local news content on mobile for stations who have not yet launched their mobile DTV service,” says Randa Minkarah, Fisher’s SVP of revenue and business development.
Developed by Seattle-based Opanga, the app will allow wireless broadband subscribers to download KOMO news segments and watch them in near real time. KOMO is Fisher’s flagship ABC affiliate in Seattle.
Opanga’s Senior VP of Business Development Bob Wise says that a 3-4 minute segment can be downloaded in 5-10 minutes to the phone’s internal memory, after which it can be played back in full HD, without the stuttering pauses that typically plague buffered video streams. The two companies plan to add DVR functionality to a later version and will also release a separate app that allows viewers to download entire newscasts.
The trick is in Opanga’s NetRover platform, which monitors both carrier and user activity, says Wise. “We send the video content when the network load is lightest.” (TVNewsCheck readers can download the free beta Android version by clicking here.) Fisher and Mobile500 are exploring ways to combine their respective apps to make the most efficient use of both cellular and mobile DTV bandwidth.
“We know from our mobile DTV test sites that local news is the content ranked highest by consumers,” Minkarah says. “And right now local news is the only thing we can offer. We were hoping to announce a working partnership for OTT content, but the economics have not been worked out.”
Other broadcasters are experimenting with broadband video apps as a stopgap for mobile DTV or as a permanent complement.
Just prior to CES, Capitol Broadcasting’s Sam Methany says he will attend the invitation-only AT&T Developer Summit, one of several private meetings with content creators. “We’ve been developing mobile apps for several years,” Methany says. “This is a great opportunity to network with our friends at AT&T and other developers to get detailed information about mobile market performance and trends.”
Major manufacturers have been selling connectible TVs for a few years now, and consumers are warming to the idea of plugging in for access to YouTube, Netflix and a variety of proprietary apps. So top TV vendors like LG and Samsung have started to compete on the software side, too, trying to outdo each other with the slickest, simplest interface, and the most useful and entertaining apps.
“The LG Electronics Smart TV platform will include additional applications and will function as a full Web browser that provides new ways for broadcasters to reach audiences with targeted content and services,” says Tim Alessi, LG’s director of new product development.
To ensure more features for its own Smart TV system, Samsung has provided third-party developers with a Samsung Apps Toolkit. Both companies have announced respective plans to partner with the newly-revamped Google TV, which is expected to announce many more hardware partnerships at CES.
“I want to see how far Google TV will make its way into CE devices and TVs, or whether CE manufacturers will create proprietary operating systems,” says Disney’s Cheng, and he’s not alone. Others are asking the same question about Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 or Microsoft Mobile’s suitability as a connectivity engine.
Meanwhile, all industry eyes are watching that perennial CES no-show, Apple. While the late Steve Jobs denigrated his Apple TV set-top box as a mere “hobby,” the relentless rumor is that by mid-2012 we’ll see a full-fledged “iTV” running Apple’s powerful and pervasive IOS operating system.
By building the “beta version” of its Siri intelligent personal assistant into every iPhone 4S, Apple is first to market and the company to beat in voice-driven operating systems. If imitation is a good barometer, then clearly TV manufacturers think voice control could be the Next Big Thing. LG has already announced a major upgrade to its Magic Remote, including voice control, which Alessi describes as “a more intuitive way for people to search and find content on LG’s Smart TV platform.”
But is voice control a game changer? Nielsen’s Brown is not so sure. “CE manufacturers will get behind voice as another consumer marketing hook. The same goes for gesture-driven TVs. But these tools are not always practical, but they can make it easy and fun to search for and navigate content.”
BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield caused an uproar this week when he estimated that in homes using Netflix, that OTT service’s total monthly viewing would make it second only to CBS as the most-watched network. But in the same blog, Greenfield admitted that “this is rather meaningless when put in the context of total television viewing” where Netflix represents only 2.4% of total viewing time.
Yet even though consumers are watching more traditional TV than ever, broadcasters would be foolish to overlook the potential of OTT delivery to compete with or enhance their business.
YouTube, Netflix and Hulu will all be at CES, eager to discuss content and distribution deals. None of them have expressed much interest in local station content, but that could change with the advent of mobile TV, if stations are willing to share their consumer data.
Several conference sessions at Entertainment Matters and Digital Hollywood will examine how local content can find additional distribution via OTT , devices like Roku and TiVo, as well as social media networks that are now streaming video. And OTT pioneer Jack Perry is seeking to bolster his roster of station partners for his SyncBak service, especially designed to deliver local broadcast content OTT.
It will also be interesting to see whether any cable or broadcast networks announce significant OTT deals at CES. Arguably, the biggest threat to stations posed by OTT services is that they offer a competing way to view your primetime schedule. (According to paidconent.org, as much as 60% of Netflix viewing is spent watching TV shows.)
“Now is the time for local broadcasters to build their own OTT offerings,” says Nielsen’s Brown, “to garner a space that could otherwise upend their own business models.”
At CES, broadcasters will also get a chance to check out the new devices for watching TV.
Nielsen’s Brown expects “no less than 30-50 new tablets will surface at CES,” as well as a new generation of so-called ultrabooks (ultralight laptop computers.) This will “set off a new contest as to which device is more consumer-friendly,” says Brown.
ABC’s Cheng is eager to see “just how many different screen sizes on mobile platforms will be offered and which sizes consumers will finally embrace. Samsung has led the market in offering just about every screen size possible between a phone and a tablet.”
While smartphones and tablets have become consumers’ favorite video viewers when no better screen is available, their greater value to broadcasters is as a “second screen.” According to Nielsen, 62% of Americans use the Internet while watching TV, in many cases on tablets and smartphones. Thirty-eight percent of Americans own a smartphone.
Both those percentages are growing and broadcasters are taking notice — and taking advantage. Nielsen and ABC collaborated on Media-Sync, an interactive app technology that synchronizes primetime shows like Gray’s Anatomy with additional content on the iPhone or iPad. Cheng’s team at ABC won this year’s Emmy for Interactive Video for their ambitious “Oscar Digital Experience” app to accompany the Academy Awards.
“A four-screen strategy is a minimum for 2012,” says Capitol’s Methany. “Broadcasters should embrace that the mobile device is where their viewers will most likely get breaking news. It’s the first touch point for a strategy that drives usage.”
Fisher’s Minkarah agrees, emphasizing how mobile screens affect revenue. “People enjoy watching TV with another device on their lap. I’d like to be able to serve consumers with geotagged ads for products they tell us they’re interested in.”
But Nielsen’s Scott Brown counsels patience. “Mainstream in-home consumption will remain on HDTV sets in the home with tablets and smartphones as secondary viewing and complementary interactive devices,” he says.
Although viewing on mobile devices has more than doubled since 2009, it still represents a small fraction of the time Americans spend watching traditional TV, which has increased 22 minutes per month per person during last year, Brown says. “That’s firm evidence of television’s continued growth and dominance as the source of video content for all demographics. The challenge is to make the most of that future with wise decisions today.”