TV On Your Handheld:It’s finally here, but is there anything on?

By Jamie Lendino

There’s yet another screen beckoning for your attention: mobile phones. After years of promise, phones that can stream live Internet video have finally hit the market, and the first phones with built-in TV tuners arrive in the U.S. this year.

Currently, relatively few people tune in to videos on their cell phones. But, by 2011, as many as 120 million could be watching mobile TV, according to a report by Informa Telecoms & Media. The number may be optimistic, as fewer people than that — 110 million — currently watch TV in the U.S. on traditional sets. Still, the number of viewers who watch mobile TV is sure to grow in coming years.

But what will they watch? And will they pay? At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, last month’s 3GSM World Conference, and elsewhere, experts are debating what kinds of programming consumers want on the very small screen.

Supposedly all about the content…
Until now, mobile programming has focused largely on small “bites” of television. You can pick up a clip of last night’s Jay Leno monologue on Verizon’s V CAST service, or watch a highlight from a football game. V CAST costs $15/month, and includes exclusive content such as ESPN 3GTV, plus video clips from ABC News, CBS News, Maxim, and more.

Sprint’s Power Vision network and Cingular Video offer similar choices, although Sprint is experimenting with a small number of live television feeds that stream directly to some of their video-capable handsets in real time. Sprint TV offers live channels from ABC News, FOX Sports, and the Discovery Channel. Cingular Video offers clips from The Tonight Show and Desperate Housewives, as well as a wide range of HBO programming including clips from The Sopranos and Entourage.

The programs people most want to watch may not be available, as the biggest challenges facing the industry revolve around digital rights issues.

Industry watchers say news and big entertainment events seem to do well. “Consumer interest in mobile TV is very diverse,” says Laura Pannino, spokesperson for Modeo, a broadcast mobile TV provider that recently launched test trials in Pittsburgh and New York. “That said, some early preferences are emerging, including live news, animation, sports news, and sports highlights. Other areas of interest are music and entertainment.”

According to Pannino, “Consumers really do love live TV that has a similar look and feel to the in-home TV experience.”

As part of its new New York broadcast trial, Modeo is delivering several live channels, and it has licensing agreements with NBC, E!, Discovery, FOX News, FOX Sports, and Music Choice. “There are some great examples of live news events where we saw tremendous spikes in usage: the Michael Jackson verdict, during the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, the [7/11/06] London bombings, Anna Nicole Smith’s tragic death, and more,” says Jason Taylor, spokesperson for MobiTV, which delivers streamed feeds to dozens of current models of cell phones. “We also have seen incredible spikes during special entertainment or music events we air with our partners: a fantastic live Madonna concert with Chum [a content provider] in Canada, a Bon Jovi concert with Sprint here in the U.S., and much more.”

Some providers are even trying out exclusive mobile content for the first time. Last year, Sprint announced a new series of commercials and clips featuring Will Farrell, while Cingular’s HBO deal brought Sarah Jessica Parker, Bob Costas, and various cast members from Entourage on board for made-for-mobile video.

But really, it’s about the licensing deals
But, the programs people most want to watch may not be available. Pannino says the biggest challenges facing the industry revolve around digital rights issues. “For example, ESPN is considered the leader in traditional TV distribution for sports, but in the mobile landscape, ESPN has only limited rights to game highlights,” she explains. “The major sports leagues have retained the majority of rights to that programming and how that programming is distributed. As a result, our strategies will have to continue to evolve [together with the networks] in the mobile space.”

Taylor says that MobiTV is “talking to all the usual suspects” about nearly all of the hot topics in mobile television: primetime content, video on demand, pause-and-resume functionality, and cross-platform licensing. Comedy, music videos and other shorter-form programs suit the needs of the “mobile snacker,” or a person trying to kill some time, according to Taylor.

Other programming suits people interested in a particular event or program, or those with a longer period of time to dedicate to viewing. As the technology continues to improve and becomes easier to use, more and more people will likely tune in. If the handset is already in someone’s pocket, no one has to convince them to make an extra purchase.

Consequently, it’s likely they’ll eventually get curious, and try watching a video clip for the first time by flipping open their handset.

“Watching TV is America’s favorite pastime,” Taylor says. “Let us know what you want to watch, and we’ll make sure you don’t miss it.”

Jamie Lendino writes’s Mobile Media News blog.