Advertisers Are Standing Still On Mobile ... for Now
But agencies, buyers, know it looms large in the future
By Joe Mandese -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/25/2005 8:00:00 PM
On a certain Sunday last January, Bob Flood had boarded a bus with some big TV advertisers and media buyers when something caught his attention. The bus, which was headed to Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla.—site of Super Bowl XXXIX—was outfitted with TV monitors playing live pregame coverage from Fox Sports, which had invited the group to the big game. And it struck Flood that “the capability of watching all the pregame coverage on a mobile basis really made me think about where all this might be going.”
First mobile-TV experience
What's significant about Flood's reaction to his mobile-TV experience is that as executive VP, national electronic media, at Optimedia, he is one of the most knowledgeable media buyers there is on the subject of new-media platforms, especially mobile-TV technologies. He can rattle off content and carrier deals, infrastructure issues, what the penetrations of cellphone and hand-held devices currently are, and how many bits of data it takes to transmit enough frames of TV programming per second to approximate conventional broadcast-TV-quality programming.
But even this expert was startled by the firsthand experience of mobile TV.
The mobile programming, which in this case was transmitted to a dish on the bus via Fox's regular DirecTV feed, wasn't using a breakthrough technology per se, but it was a way of demonstrating the power of mobile TV to some of Madison Avenue's most influential media buyers. But even for emerging media buyers such as Flood, mobile-TV technologies—regardless of the platform—are still too nascent, lack the scale, and are rife with far too many logistical issues to be taken seriously as a conventional media buy.
Instead, he says, they fall into the category of R&D—or “something to keep an eye on.”
But what buyers know is that TV is going mobile and that consumers—not programmers, technology developers or marketers—are leading the charge.
“People like to take their media with them,” Flood explains, citing the success of Sony's PSP, the first hand-held unit with a screen and resolution capable of viewing conventional TV programming to gain critical mass. But no advertising model has been developed to seize upon it. It's still mainly people downloading movies or TV shows onto the system to take TV on the go for their personal consumption—when they're not using the system to play videogames.
The range of mobile-TV platforms is so broad and has so many unique variables that media buyers say it is more reminiscent of the early days of online media than it is of conventional TV.
“There's a lot of thinking about it going on,” says Brian Wieser, VP/director of industry analysis at Magna Global USA, New York, the big media-buying unit of Interpublic. But so far, it's a wait-and-see kind of proposition. Says Wieser, “In theory, anything's possible, but there are a lot of infrastructure issues that still need to be worked out.”
A different view
Madison Avenue looks at mobile TV differently from the TV industry or a technology provider. Wieser agrees with Optimedia's Flood that any way a consumer uses TV on a portable device could technically be called mobile TV. That ranges from programming burned onto a DVD to satellite TV beamed to an auto to a video cellphone or Wi-Fi services that help consumers stream videos.
“It could even mean satellite radio,” says Wieser, noting that Sirius has been experimenting with something called “visual radio” that looks and sounds a lot like television.
Wall Street analyst Lee Westerfield says mobile TV can be defined even more broadly. “The real seachange sweeps in with increasing wireless bandwidth both in-home and outside the home,” says Westerfield, an analyst with securities firm Harris Nesbitt, New York.
He predicts that, within two years, American households will have in-home wireless capacity transmitting up to two gigabytes per second, making TV a portable medium within the home. Outside the home, he predicts, wireless carriers and Wi-Fi developers will “set up a world of video at consumer fingertips.” Just last week, Westerfield noted, online search behemoth Google announced plans to begin buying Wi-Fi spectrum.
But while the near future may hold a virtual wireless cornucopia of mobile-TV services, Magna's Wieser says the here and now still is more of a curiosity for Madison Avenue than a necessity. In a white paper sent to clients earlier this year, Wieser described the current gold rush of mobile media as a “gadget- generated growth” that has been sparked by cellphone technology capable of delivering speedy data transmissions—14 to 17 frames per second—that are required to approximate the kind of TV viewing most people are used to.
Meanwhile, a variety of cellphone carriers ranging from giants like Verizon's VCast to smaller entrepreneurs like Single Touch Interactive and Boomerang Media are rushing to cut deals with programmers hoping that, if they build an infrastructure and content, consumers and ads will follow.
One former Madison Avenue exec, recognizing the transitional phase for the TV and advertising industries, is about to launch a TV network designed to exploit it.
“It's all about creating the right chemistry,” says Ryan Magnussen, CEO for an on-demand television channel called RipeTV that will launch Oct. 28 and operate across cable, broadband and mobile-TV platforms.
Magnussen, who founded Zentropy, a unit of Interpublic's McCann-Erickson agency that was one of the early pioneers of streaming-media advertising applications, says RipeTV has come up with an array of protocols that enable the channel to be viewed on combinations of existing cellphone and hand-held device hardware and mobile services.
To be sure, certain compromises have to be made when adapting TV programming and ads to mobile devices.
For one thing, some kinds of advertising, such as an on-screen advertising bug superimposed for advertisers on cable TV, simply don't show up on a tiny mobile screen. And the average length of the programming is much shorter—only three to six minutes verses the six- to 12-minute program lengths it runs on other TV platforms. There's a practical reason for that: Cellphone batteries lose their juice.
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