Owners of more than 800 local TV stations where ad revenue is plunging steadily said they've formed a group that's testing three standards for sending local digital TV signals to cell phones, laptops and other mobile devices.
The Open Mobile Video Coalition said at the National Association of Broadcasters meeting in Las Vegas that it will push for an open standard by next year that would allow members to bypass cell phone companies and tap into what they think will be a $2 billion market for mobile advertising.
The station owners say transmitting directly to mobile devices would give them a third means of delivering local programming — and capturing revenue — along with broadcasting to TVs and streaming it on station-owned Web sites.
"You now have three legs of a stool, whereas, before, you just had one," said Jim Conschafter, senior vice president of broadcast for Media General Inc., which owns 23 network-affiliated stations reaching 9.5 percent of U.S. households.
Ad revenue at the top 100 U.S. stations was down 17 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007, while syndicated TV and networks saw revenue rise, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising.
Local station owners are competing fiercely for viewers against an increasing number of cable channels and video Web sites.
The coalition is testing three technical standards and hopes to submit recommendations to the nonprofit, standard-setting Advanced Television Systems Committee next month. The ATSC requested proposals for a mobile TV standard.
The coalition hopes to have a single standard approved by the time all analog television signals in the U.S. are converted to digital next February.
The coalition said the cost of upgrading each TV station so it can broadcast to mobile devices would be a relatively low $100,000, or less, while chip set upgrades or add-ons to cell phones, PDAs, laptops or other devices are estimated to cost less than $10.
"We've already got towers out there, broadcasting TV stations since 1948," said Sterling Davis, vice president of engineering for Cox Broadcasting and chair of the coalition's technical group.
The three standards the coalition is considering are: the MPH (Mobile-Pedestrian-Handheld) system developed by LG Electronics and Harris Corp.; the A-VSB system by Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Rohde & Schwarz; and a third system developed by Thomson and Micronas.
Most cell phones are sold by carriers that also offer TV services, and it's unclear if those providers would allow competing content to reach their devices.
One of those services was developed by MediaFLO USA, a unit of Qualcomm Inc., and was deployed in 58 markets last year by Verizon Wireless.
MediaFLO doesn't consider the coalition competition — even if it offers mobile TV services for free — because that would boost overall viewership and that in turn could increase paying subscribers too.
"We benefit when mobile TV succeeds," said Omar Javaid, vice president of business development for MediaFLO. Javaid said MediaFLO would be open to adding the new coalition's communication standard to its chip.
The coalition's open approach has the backing of major networks such as NBC and Fox, which have members on the executive committee.
(MSNBC is a joint Microsoft/NBC Universal venture.)
"The time to market is low, the investment required to get into the game is low, and the cost to get new content is very low," said John Eck, president of the NBC TV Network. "It gives people the opportunity to get good high-quality content and good local information."
NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co., already contributes content such as NBC News shows to the MediaFLO-based service, for which Verizon charges $15 to $25 a month.
Brandon Burgess, chairman of the coalition, said the cheaper infrastructure changes needed by local TV stations will allow for cheaper viewing.
"What MediaFLO is struggling with is their prices are too high and their marketing is too low," Burgess said. "The broadcasters should learn from that and try to come into the market on a cheaper basis, maybe free."
The group could also promote their version cost-effectively, he said. "The one thing broadcasters have is air time," Burgess said.