Live broadcast TV to mobile phones, once a mere novelty at trade shows, is becoming a potentially lucrative business reality for programming networks.
Although on-demand video clips and even live streaming services to cellphones have been available through the cellular network—streaming service MobiTV has more than 2 million subscribers—new broadcast mobile-TV services like Qualcomm’s MediaFLO have made quantum leaps in picture quality and user experience, say programmers.
“This is a totally different experience, particularly when it comes to channel-switching,” says Cyriac Roeding, executive VP of CBS Mobile. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Several services are either testing or selling their devices in U.S. markets, often offering simulcast programming from broadcast networks and cable channels.
The MediaFLO service, branded V Cast Mobile TV, broadcasts on channel 55 in the UHF spectrum. It was launched by Verizon Wireless on March 1 in 20 markets, with eight channels of programming that can be received by a new Samsung phone.
Content is provided by CBS, Comedy Central, ESPN, Fox, MTV, Nickelodeon and NBC, which is providing a dedicated news channel, NBC News 2 GO, and an entertainment channel, NBC 2 GO. Consumers can purchase all eight channels for $15 a month; the Samsung SCH-u620 handset costs $200 (a $50 rebate is available with a two-year voice contract).
“I love it, it’s a great product,” says Charles Durham, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based entrepreneur who became the first V Cast Mobile TV customer when he purchased the new Samsung phone at a local BJ’s store.
The service’s major appeal for Durham is news content, because his job often has him on the go. He is happy with the picture quality, which is comparable to his video iPod, and says he easily received the V Cast feed while driving at highway speeds. “I don’t watch it while I’m driving,” he says, “but my son watched it, and it worked well.”
Modeo, the Crown Castle subsidiary that began beta-testing its service in New York City earlier this year, also offers a robust service but has yet to sign a deal with a wireless carrier. Modeo uses the DVB-H transmission system, which differs from Qualcomm’s proprietary FLO system but shares some of the same underlying signal-modulation technology. B&C staffers have been experimenting with a prototype Modeo handset, which can receive six channels of video—Fox News Channel, Fox Sports, Discovery, E!, CNBC and MSNBC—along with eight music channels from Music Choice.
The Modeo handset produces a quality picture and reliably receives the DVB-H signals both inside and outside B&C’s office building. It can even withstand a short elevator ride; the picture starts to freeze up but is quickly restored outside the elevator car. One flaw with the Modeo model is that channel-acquisition time—the period it takes to switch channels—is as long as seven seconds, but Modeo executives say that can be improved through software development.
MediaFLO has signed an agreement with AT&T to provide its service to Cingular Wireless customers later this year and could expand its coverage into 20 additional markets, says MediaFLO President Gina Lombardi. The service will also be introducing more programming, which could include a movie channel and another sports package. With CBS, Fox and ESPN already on board, Lombardi notes, MediaFLO will already have plenty of live sports, including college football and NASCAR.
“The live aspect of shows is really important,” Lombardi says. “Something we stressed with all of our content providers is, if they had sports, we would like to get those rights and bring it to wireless consumers.”
CBS Mobile has created a dedicated master control at CBS Television City in Los Angeles to supply programming via fiber to MediaFLO’s network-operations center in San Diego, which transmits it via satellite to local headends. CBS programming includes a mix of simulcast news and primetime content, such as CSI and Survivor, and time-shifted shows like Late Night With David Letterman. Later this month, CBS will supply V Cast Mobile TV subscribers with live coverage of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game.
NBC has created its own MediaFLO origination center in New York to pump content to San Diego. It provides a bevy of simulcast primetime shows on NBC 2 Go, including Heroes, Friday Night Lights and Tonight Show With Jay Leno.
“What’s unique is, for the first time, you can not only watch Tonight at 11:30, but if you miss it, you can also watch it the next day as you’re going into work,” says Salil Dalvi, general manager of wireless platforms for NBC Universal.
NBC News 2 Go offers a mix of programming from NBC, CNBC and MSNBC, including a simulcast of flagship morning news program Today, and integrates content from digital multicast service NBC Weather Plus. For example, when Today goes to a local weather break, the NBC News 2 Go service will show a segment from Weather Plus instead. Dalvi says that it may also use the local breaks to replay important interviews from earlier in the show or perhaps introduce customized content produced specifically for the mobile platform.
At launch, NBC is running on the MediaFLO platform the same national commercials that run on the network. But Dalvi says it may experiment with different forms of advertising, such as running four 15-second spots during a 60-second break.
CBS is inserting different commercials in the MediaFLO service than it runs in the network feed, Roeding says, noting that mobile TV is a perfect way to introduce advertising to mobile handsets.
“On the cellphone, advertising is a new thing, as carriers have been afraid of churn,” he says. “But on the new service of mobile TV, advertising is a full-blown element of the whole experience, as consumers don’t expect anything else.
“For the first time,” he adds, “we have a 24/7 connection with consumers and a way to serve ads to them.”
Additional reporting by Garth Johnston