Race for the mobile TV audience
By Kate Bulkley
Monday May 2, 2005
The BBC is tangling with phone operators over how its public service remit squares with their commercial priorities, reports Kate Bulkley
The battle for TV viewers is set to move to a new level with a BBC plan to allow mobile phone users to watch video clips - and possibly whole programmes - on a large scale. Under the initiative, people will also be able to use their mobile phones to schedule their television sets and PCs to record BBC shows.
For the BBC, the development of new platforms such as mobile phone networks is merely following its public service remit to offer its content to as many people as possible. But for the mobile phone operators, the BBC's idea has one major flaw - it is free.
When a non-commercial TV broadcaster meets a profit-hungry distribution platform, it is time to clear the ring and expect the main bout. The two sides are now circling one another and throwing out a few jabs, but the BBC's bold strategy couldforeshadow full-scale fisticuffs.
The BBC says its three-phase "appointment to view" plan for mobiles will begin in the next two months and should climax at the end of 2005 with the ability to use a mobile phone to record TV shows either by using it to programme a personal video recorder (PVR) or an interactive media player (IMP) on a PC.
In the US people can already programme Tivo PVRs remotely over the internet. In the UK, Sky is developing a way for subscribers to remotely schedule their Sky+ PVRs to record, either over the internet or via a phone text message. Sky says it has not yet talked to the BBC about the corporation's aspirations in this area. "Sky+ is our product and we have the customer relationship, so if the BBC is talking about remotely scheduling Sky+ to record their programmes, then they will need to talk to us," says a Sky spokesman.
Angel Gambino, the BBC's controller of business development and emerging platforms, says the BBC's ambitious new mobile services will effectively turn a mobile phone into a portable TV and TV remote control all rolled into one.
"It is our attempt to create a mobile browser service to aggregate all BBC content from radio to video, stills and graphics, all of it, for the consumer. It is still very much clip-based but will over time move into full programmes to the mobile as well," says Gambino, who presented the plans at the MIP TV programming market in Cannes earlier this month.
She says promotions for BBC programmes - be they on posters, TV, radio or the internet - will increasingly include mobile short-code numbers to direct audiences to mobile content and services. "The mobile operators have an incredibly dominant position in terms of managing the mobile gateways," says Gambino. "We want to ensure that we stay as close as possible to our audiences by maintaining and building our own mobile gateways."
The BBC has already run tests by offering lengthy video streams to mobile phones of high-profile events such as last summer's Olympic games from Athens and the Grand National last month. In the case of the Grand National, some 5,000 users accessed the streamed video of the race on their mobile phones, but at least two mobile operators, Vodafone and O2, blocked its subscribers from viewing the service. Gambino claims this is because the operators cannot charge a premium to their subscribers for BBC content because it has already been paid for by the TV licence fee.
Graeme Ferguson, Vodafone's director of global content development, admits it is more difficult working with the BBC because of the corporation's public service remit, but he says Vodafone is "more than happy" to work with the BBC on "relevant consumer offerings".
Ferguson adds: "The BBC needs to appreciate some of the commercial realities and notice periods for mobile operators. It is not just putting content on a dumb pipe. This is a mobile network, a communications network and they need to engage with us properly."
A spokesman for mobile operator O2 said it decided to block the video stream of the National because O2 did not have enough time to plan a proper service.
"To make sure something like the Grand National is offered well we need more time to plan it and to test it. There is no way you can deliver a service confidently with two days' notice," says O2's press spokesman. "We are more than happy to talk to any content provider. It is in our interest to provide as much interesting and exciting content to our subscribers as we can."
The problem with rich media content like a 20-minute horse race is that it involves huge downloads that cost the operators and have to be packaged correctly to avoid billing consumers unrealistic amounts. For example, one operator calculated that if a UK mobile subscriber had watched the BBC's video stream of the Grand National from outside the UK, the bill could have been as high as £2,000.
Patrick Parodi, who chairs a mobile industry group called the Mobile Entertainment Forum, says blocking content or keeping it off the mobile operator's portal (such as Vodafone's Vodafone Live! and O2's O2 Active) is all about commercial considerations. "It is all tied to economic systems and it has to be worked out," says Parodi.
But he cautioned that mobile operators should be careful about blocking content, because there are other technologies that will compete with the mobile operators' current networks, potentially including wireless networks and a new broadcast technology called DVB-H, which uses TV broadcast frequencies to transmit to handheld, wireless devices.
"DVB-H bypasses the traditional mobile voice networks," says Parodi. "So the message to operators is that if they don't find a way to offer all kinds of content, they could create demand for DVB-H and not their own networks."
The mobile operators are gatekeepers to their networks in much the same way that Sky and the cable operators control access to their pay TV platforms. In the TV world the gatekeepers are bound by Ofcom regulations to offer access to channels on fair commercial terms. So far, the mobile networks have been self-regulated, but that may have to change.