Just a couple of years ago, CBS had roughly a dozen original series in development for its nascent mobile business. Most were short form, and generally on the lighter side, such as the off-the-wall animated show Danny Bonaduce: Life Coach.
Now that mobile video usage is starting to expand, executives have been slightly thrown by what is resonating with viewers of the smallest screen: good old fashioned drama. According to Nielsen Mobile, CBS’ content is among the most popular in the burgeoning medium, as viewers are beginning to turn to mobile devices to take in their favorite hour-long soap, or even that week’s episode of CSI.
NBC is drawing the largest audience to mobile video, per Nielsen. According to the network’s internal numbers, this past fall NBC.com generated 1.8 million mobile video streams, 1.3 million of which were full episodes of shows like Heroes, The Office and even Lipstick Jungle.
Those sorts of numbers are upending conventional wisdom about mobile content—that it has to be short in length and shot with a tiny screen in mind.
“Long-form is doing better for us than short form, and yes we’re surprised,” said Steve Andrade, general manager of NBC.com. “But we shouldn’t be surprised, since we had the same thought online, and that’s proven not to be true.”
However, what is different about the Web versus the mobile Web is that users are far less inclined to search aimlessly, and thus they’re unlikely to find a lot of new options. “What we find is that discovery is a problem,” said Jeff Sellinger, senior vp of CBS Mobile. That’s why familiar, well-marketed shows like CSI break through, while made-for-mobile shows can struggle to get noticed.
Sellinger said the network is still producing original mobile series, and has scored with easily accessible shows like Daily Delivery, which provides short bursts of Hollywood news. (That show is nearing 1,000 episodes.)
Shows like Delivery influenced the way that CBS presents its prime-time content on various mobile platforms. “We chapter them,” explained Sellinger. For example, a show like CSI is broken up into six or seven clearly labeled segments—part 1, part 2, etc.—so that viewers can watch parts of an hour episode and come back to where they’ve left off, much like reading a book. NBC employs a similar strategy.
“The whole idea of snackable is true,” Sellinger said. “People have less time, but don’t want less content.”
The kind of content people want may also depend on factors like their age, and the type of mobile devices they use to watch video. For example, MTV Networks’ generally younger audiences are consuming tons of short clips. According to Greg Clayman, executive vp, digital distribution & business development at MTV Networks, the company’s collection of mobile platforms streamed 50 million videos in 2007, a number that doubled last year.
“Different content formats work better in different mobile environments,” he said. “For clips, they tend to be delivered over the air. They are more spur of the moment.”
Clayman is referring to streaming video using a phone’s basic network service, either via mobile Web sites through subscription offerings like Verizon’s V Cast. Users can also “sideload” content by syncing mobile devices to their computers. And several carriers offer subscriptions to live linear video content through Qualcomm’s MediaFLO product, which actually transmits using an old UHF frequency spectrum.
With all of these options, it’s probably dangerous to draw any long-term conclusions around usage behavior. “We’re still kind of sorting out if this is something that has mass appeal,” said Mark Donovan, senior analyst at M:Metrics, the mobile measurement division of comScore.
So far mobile video is pretty niche. Nielsen estimates that 10.3 million mobile phone subscribers access video via their phone monthly, or roughly 5 percent of the cell phone population. According to M:Metrics’ most recent survey, just 7.5 million users claim they’ve watched video in a given month.
But those numbers are expected to rise quickly. That’s because consumer interest in mobile Web and video has soared in the last year, thanks to Apple. “The iPhone upended the whole thing, and now all the momentum is going in the right way,” said Eric Bader, partner at Brand In Hand, a mobile marketing specialty agency that works with advertisers like General Mills. Nic Covey, Nielsen Mobile’s director of insights, added that the iPhone already accounts for 11 percent of the mobile video audience.
Even struggling Web video aggregator Joost has been given new life by the iPhone, as its video app has surpassed 1 million downloads in just three months. And given the growing appeal of long-form content, Covey is predicting that Hulu will soon follow Joost’s lead with a breakthrough app of its own.
But while apps are one interesting development, broadcasting to mobile in the Holy Grail for the space.
Bader is bullish on the prospect that, in the next few years, many Americans will be able to receive live, over the air TV on their phones. That’s when advertisers really get excited.
“That’s a game changer,” agreed Covey.