Adventures Abroad

U.S. media firms look overseas for lessons in mobile video

Expectant parents soon may be able to monitor the progress of their pregnancy via cellphone, thanks to Discovery Networks.

On Aug. 7, Discovery is launching its first U.S.-based Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) service, a direct-to-consumer mobile portal where users can access ring tones, podcasts and video clips, and soon, applications like a pregnancy calendar that offers weekly updates and health tips. The calendar was the most popular feature in Brazil, one of several countries where Discovery already operates WAP services.

Discovery is one of a handful of American media companies using their international reach to develop their mobile-video business. With advanced infrastructures as much as five years ahead of those here, Europe, Asia and Latin America provide such companies as MTV Networks (MTVN), NBC Universal and Fox with opportunities to field new content and applications before launching here. And while a hit in Prague may not play in Peoria, companies are gleaning lessons abroad that they can apply at home.

“One of our great advantages is being in 165-plus countries, especially in these new-media platforms,” says Don Baer, Discovery Networks senior executive VP of strategy and development. “To already be able to trial new services there has given us some learning.”

Discovery Networks has started mobile ventures in 18 countries, where it finds not only more-sophisticated cellular networks but also more-pervasive mobile usage than in the States. (According to research firm Frost & Sullivan, the market for mobile music and video applications in the Asia-Pacific region grew to $1.2 billion last year.) Both Discovery and MTVN, which is carried on 69 carriers around the world, have learned to tailor their mobile content to the habits of different populations.

For example, Discovery learned that consumers in South Korea will watch a mobile video for up to an average of 40 minutes at a time—roughly equivalent to the average commute. In Britain, where users can access wallpapers, ringtones and weekly two-hour blocks of video segments on Discovery Mobile, the company limits the video clips to about five minutes to suit preferences there.

MTVN likewise found a preference abroad for short clips like music videos, as well as for animation. The positive response fueled the launch of its first made-for-mobile series, Dingo Ate My Video, a music-video show hosted by puppets, on VH1 Mobile.

When it came to news, however, the company learned that repurposed TV and Web content didn't always succeed on mobile, in part due to the difference in scale: Words in the news crawl were simply too small to read on a cellphone screen. Also, the length and pace of many MTV News TV segments didn't suit the mobile platform. As a result, MTV News has begun producing domestic video reports exclusively for mobile.

In some cases, the limits of U.S. mobile technology have hampered companies' efforts to apply the experience gained abroad. Fox, for example, learned that UK consumers prefer to buy “mobisodes” of drama series 24 in a bundle, rather than one by one. The mini-episodes arrived here six months later, but Fox was able to offer them only piecemeal since U.S. wireless carriers weren't able to bundle them.

American consumers are also more restricted by their carriers in the way they obtain mobile video. Whereas European carriers enable users to download mobile video content from sources like the Web, U.S. providers limit what users can access over their mobile networks.

“We would love to see consumers have more control over that discovery process in the U.S.,” says Salil Dalvi, VP of NBC Universal Wireless. The company offers car-racing videogame The Fast and the Furious for mobile download on the Jamster UK Website.

While lessons learned abroad can prove useful, Discovery's Baer cautions that “just because something is working in a different marketplace … doesn't necessarily mean it'll keep working there or work in the U.S.”

Genres like news or music may translate, says Greg Clayman, MTVN VP of wireless strategy and operations, but specific programs may not necessarily.

Noting the way many Americans are bewildered by the international popularity of Baywatch star David Hasselhoff, Clayman says, “Just because The Hoff kills in Germany doesn't mean he's going to kill here.”