Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Television's mobile revolution

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian

Monday December 12, 2005

Deals between mobile phone companies and programme makers will bring big-name series, like Sex And The City, to handsets. But who wants it and who is willing to pay? Kate Bulkley reports.

It is shaping up to be the first of what could be many merry Christmases for the UK's beleaguered mobile phone firms as one of their greatest wishes is coming true - big-brand TV programme makers are finally starting to take mobile seriously.

Even six months ago, such a statement would have seemed wildly premature, but as 2005 draws to a close, some of the world's best-known programming brands are being made available on handsets. A case in point is the landmark deal that Vodafone announced last week with American broadcasting powerhouse HBO. The two-year deal will allow the mobile company to screen a wide variety of HBO programming, including Sex And The City and Curb Your Enthusiasm, to customers with the more powerful 3G handsets. The HBO deal is particularly significant because it includes access to entire programmes, not just the clips or cut-down versions, often called mobisodes.

"We are starting with full-length programmes but we will also be experimenting with lots of variants of formats going forward," says Graeme Ferguson, director of global content development at Vodafone. "It's starting out with the shows like Sex And The City where we can clear the rights and it will include all of HBO's new stuff and their attractive library stuff and maybe even some made-for-mobile programmes." Bold experiment

Last week, Vodafone also announced mobile content deals with Eurosport, UEFA Champions League, MTV and Discovery as well as Twentieth Century Fox Television. Together these channels are being marketed as Vodafone's TV Variety Pack and will be sold separately from Sky Mobile, a recent tie-up with Sky. More TV content is on the way: this week, Viacom, which owns MTV, is expected to announce a mobile deal with Vodafone and mobile operator 3 to offer mobile clips from the Paramount Comedy Channel, home of hit shows such as South Park, Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond.

The definition of what works as mobile TV is also evolving. Vodafone's deal last week with Fox will bring three-to-four minute, cut-down versions of the thriller series 24 to Vodafone Variety Pack subscribers. This is a big step beyond the mobisodes Fox created last year for Vodafone that were loosely based on 24 but did not include the stars. Vodafone has never revealed the number of UK downloads for these, but industry sources say it was not a huge hit. "The first 24 mobisodes we did were a bold experiment but it was never going to be a huge revenue driver," admits Ferguson. "I get frustrated sometimes with some people's attitudes about this because we are doing stuff that has never been done before. We are creating a new medium, which means there are going to be challenges along the way."

One of those challenges is figuring out what consumers want to watch and how much they will pay for it. When Vodafone and Sky's 19-channel Sky Mobile service launched last month, 40% of Vodafone's 3G phone customers used the service in the first 10 days, about 136,000 customers. They downloaded 1m streams of content. These numbers are good, but the content is free, so the real test will be February 1 when customers must start paying 5 a month for each of the two Sky Mobile packages on offer. Vodafone's Variety Pack will cost users 3 a month from that date too. Orange began offering its 3G subscribers a mobile TV package for 10 a month in May but has not released subscriber numbers. The point is, if you want to watch a lot of TV on your mobile, the bills could rack up fast. A recent report from media lawyers Olswang poured cold water on mobile TV as a mass market service, saying that of 1,500 people asked, only 17% wanted to watch TV content on their mobiles, while 70% were completely against the idea.

The operators argue that they are only just beginning to get the content offer right. "Mobile content relating to reality shows like X-Factor and I'm a Celebrity do really well," says Graeme Oxby, director of marketing at 3, the largest 3G operator in the UK with more than 3 million subscribers. "The great thing about mobile is it's not just about playing out what was on TV yesterday or even just about simulcasting. It's about providing a different experience around the programming. With your mobile you can do it now, you can do it sooner and you are not tied to the telly."

A distinction is also being made between TV on mobiles (streaming existing TV channels on a mobile handset) and mobile TV (creating mobisodes or bespoke services using TV programming as the starting point). "People will watch television on their phones but probably the killer application is content with interactivity," says Peter Crowley, director of interactive media at Endemol, which has set up a mobile content creation division and plans to launch at least two channels based on its archive, one featuring reality TV clips and one for comedy. Meanwhile, Channel 4 has earmarked around 500,000 to commission bespoke mobile content next year.

But mobile TV is also about big, established brands, which is why 3 is pleased with an output deal it signed last month with ITV that gives it access to all of its major programmes, including Emmerdale and Coronation Street. By the end of next year, 3 hopes to have a dozen or more mobile versions of TV programmes running at any one time as well as many more streamed TV channels.

 

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