By Steve McClellan

The Fox mobisode, Prison Break: Burden of Proof, has action, suspense and good-looking actors, just like the TV show. There are, however, two key differences between them: length (two minutes versus 44 minutes, respectively) and the number of ads—one 10-second blurb, from sole sponsor Toyota, versus 16 minutes of ads and promos.

Until now, mobisodes and other short-form fare have dominated the mobile-video landscape. But now, telecommunications company MediaFlo USA, armed with technology it claims provides better quality video than previously available for cell phones, is challenging conventional wisdom with a new service that, for the first time, offers full-length TV shows downloaded simultaneously with their airing on major networks.

The soon-to-be-available service differs from Apple’s iPhone, unveiled at the Macworld show last week, which let viewers download TV shows from its iTunes service, but doesn’t simulcast the programs. (The handset also combines phone service with the iPod and other capabilities like e-mail, Web browsing and search.) They are also downloaded without commercials. Instead, viewers pay a fee for each downloaded show.

Until now, the popular belief among marketers and programmers has been that cell phone video applications would largely consist of short bursts like Prison Break: BOP, or news and sports highlights. The prevailing view is that longer fare is too time consuming for mobile watchers on the go, plus some marketers have questioned whether 30-second TV spots can be as effective in the mobile environment as they are when shown on living room TV sets.

Mobile phone advertising is a tiny but booming market. Ad tracker PQ Media estimates spending last year at about $150 million, and forecasts a 90 percent boost this year to $290 million. Marketers are eager to reach increasingly mobile consumers, and many say they’re willing to place more ads on cell phones if they can justify the expense.

MediaFlo, a unit of Qualcomm, has so far struck deals with nets including NBC (Heroes), CBS (Survivor and CSI), MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and Fox to provide prime-time, news, sports and late-night TV shows. (The deals were announced last week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.) The programs will have a full complement of 30-second spots.

Verizon is the first wireless carrier to license the MediaFlo program package and will begin selling it to subscribers beginning later this quarter.

Many agency execs and analysts remain skeptical that consumers will want to watch full-length TV shows on a mobile phone—even with Apple’s latest device in the game—and say MediaFlo, Verizon and other potential carriers of the service (Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile and Alltel Wireless are testing it) have a lot of work to do to succeed.

It’s especially difficult to predict consumer acceptance as Verizon has yet to price the service. Interested subscribers will also have to upgrade to phones containing special microchips. Verizon’s consumer marketing pitch won’t kick off until later in the quarter, and last week it was mum on details.

Alan Gould, co-CEO, IAG Research, which measures ad recall and effectiveness, and which will track for several clients how users interact with the new service, suggests that consumers are less likely to reject receiving ads as they might object to “being charged evermore fees to have access to content.” But Greg Clayman, svp, mobile media, MTV Networks, countered that the revenue model is “very similar to cable’s” and most consumers accept paying a fee while also receiving ads.

Still, many experts believe long-form video just isn’t compatible with the cell phone. Content that has migrated from broadcasting has “significant challenges” said Aaron Watkins, vp, business development, Omnicom’s ipsh! Video quality issues aside, Watkins wonders, “Who is going to sit there and watch their phone for 30 minutes to an hour?”

Not Verizon president and COO Dennis Strigl, who told reporters at the CES he could only stand to watch the new MediaFlo service for about 15 to 20 minutes a day. When a senior exec at the charter carrier makes a comment like that, said Craig Daitch, vp and director of interactive strategy at PHD, it makes one “skeptical as to whether or not long form is going to work on the mobile device. We’re seeing convergence on steroids. The mobile carriers are trying to be all things to all people.”

But Gina Lombardi, president of MediaFlo USA, says the company tested the service with 4,000 consumers throughout 2006 and that average use was about 30 minutes a day. What people really want, she said, is “to take [their] TV wherever they go because they always have some down time. Like the guy who gets dragged to the shopping mall on a Saturday who really wants to watch a game on TV—now he can.” She noted that Fox and CBS will offer college basketball and football games as part of their program licensing agreements. The company is also talking to pro sports leagues.

For now, MediaFlo’s ad model will mimic broadcast’s, with 30-second spots—content providers will be responsible for selling the ads—seen in pods throughout the shows. But these ads can’t be skipped. Broadcast advertisers will pay extra to be in the mobile version, but can opt out, in which case the network will sell the time to other clients, said Cyriac Roeding, vp, CBS Mobile.

Look for the ad model to evolve, says Lombardi, including the introduction of interactive elements and targeting capabilities based on an array of metrics.

“This is a launch and learn, and who knows what the final model will turn out to be, but there is a lot excitement about being able to target a mobile audience and a demographic that is using a lot of the new devices in that space,” said J.B. Perrette, president, NBCU Digital Distribution. “That is exactly who advertisers want to target.”

Interactivity is critical for all the emerging media, said Jeff Cole, associate media director, WPP’s MindShare. “You can’t just repurpose the spot, it has to be the right type of engagement for the environment,” he said.

–Additional reporting by Laura Blum