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Is mobile TV ready for its close-up?

With additional mobile TV subscription services and per-episode downloads becoming available, consumers have lots of choices available for television 'snacking' on the small screen, as one analyst terms it.
ESPN TV is shown on this Samsung SCH-u620 phone, with Verizon Wireless' V Cast Mobile TV Service, which costs $15 a month.
ESPN TV is shown on this Samsung SCH-u620 phone, with Verizon Wireless' V Cast Mobile TV Service, which costs $15 a month. Verizon Wireless

Why would you want TV on a cell phone or portable device, especially when you have that 42-inch or larger flat-screen at home, beckoning you every night?

This month, AT&T began its subscription Mobile TV service, and Microsoft started selling TV shows for its Zune digital media player. ( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Last week, Orb Networks announced its software for streaming live TV to the iPhone and iPod Touch for owners of the devices willing to “jailbreak,” or unlock them (something Apple does not condone).

Verizon Wireless launched its V Cast Mobile TV subscription service, similar to AT&T’s, a year ago, and Apple has been selling TV shows for iPods from its iTunes Store since late 2005. On Tuesday, HBO started selling some of its shows through the iTunes Store.

There’s no way a 2- to 3.5-inch screen, such as those on most mobile devices like phones and portable players, can compete with the larger screen.

But when it comes to mobile TV, it’s not about competition as much as it is about choices. And it seems there is some momentum toward TV on the small screen.

“It’s more what we call ‘video snacking,’ and consumers say they’re interested in watching TV shows on their phones and on their iPods,” said Michael Gartenberg, JupiterResearch vice president and research director.

“It’s diversionary. Maybe you’re killing time, in a line at the airport, so you tune into an episode of a TV show, or turn on a news short or sports. The idea of episodic shows is that I’m watching it where I don’t have access to a TV show or to a TiVo.”

Adam Sohn, Zune’s director of marketing, said the success of digital video recorder devices, such as TiVo, “has really put us in a frame of mind where people want to watch what they want and when they want.

“They want to be a bit more in control of the experience, rather than having to sit down in front of a particular device at a particular time to consume a piece of content,” he said.

Such “short-form content,” he said, “becomes a lot more compelling for a bus ride or while you’re sitting on the exercise bike.”

As far as screen size, well, like so many other things, it’s relative, some believe.

“We’re seeing much larger mobile and portable screens coming onto the market,” said Gartenberg.

“Plus, even on a small screen, when you’re holding it relatively close to your eye, it has the same impact on you as a large screen that’s across the room.”

Another firm, ABI Research, echoed that finding in a report earlier this year. Consumers “are being increasingly enticed” to mobile TV because of “better experiences through more powerful and larger (cell phone) screens, as well as a widening array of subscription options,” the company said.

Currently, there are around 3 million mobile TV subscribers in the U.S., said Michelle Abraham, principal analyst for In-Stat market research firm.

“In the U.S., with these multiple methods of getting video, we expect by the end of 2012, there will be more than 25 million subscribers to mobile video services,” she said.

The per-episode route
Both Apple and Microsoft are charging about $1.99 per episode for TV downloads, which "does seem to be the sweet spot" on price for consumers, Gartenberg said. "They're not significantly willing to go above that per episode of a TV show."

Among this week’s “Top TV Shows” at the iTunes Store: Episodes from “Lost,” “Gossip Girl,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Family Guy.”

TV shows available at the Zune Marketplace include NBC episodes from “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “Heroes,” as well as “South Park” from Comedy Central and other offerings from the Sci-Fi Channel and MTV.

HBO episodes of “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood” and “Rome” will be priced at $2.99 per episode at the iTunes Store, while other HBO shows, such as “Sex and the City” and “The Wire” will be $1.99 an episode.

“It’s almost a little surprising consumers are willing to pay that much, because typically, a TV show is something you watch once,” said Gartenberg.

“You might buy a song for $1, and listen to that song 10,000 times over the course of your life. An episode of a TV show — you might watch it once, twice, maybe three times. It’s not something that gets watched over and over and over again.”

AT&T’s TV service, using Qualcomm’s MediaFLO technology, costs $15 a month for 10 channels, including CBS Mobile, Comedy Central, NBC 2Go and ESPN Mobile TV. They are some of the same channels offered at the same cost by Verizon Wireless, which is also using MediaFLO.

Verizon Wireless also has a $13-a-month “Mobile TV Limited” subscription that provides Fox Mobile, NBC, NBC News and CBS Mobile.

So far, MediaFLO TV service is limited to more than 50 markets and only to certain phones by both AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

The $15-a-month subscription service is only offered right now on two phones from AT&T: LG’s Vu, which has a 3-inch touchscreen, and Samsung’s Access, with a 2.3-inch screen.

Verizon Wireless provides V Cast Mobile TV on four phones including the LG Voyager, with a 2.81-inch touchscreen.

Sprint Nextel offers TV on some of its phones via the MobiTV service, for $9.99 a month. MobiTV, with 60 channels, streams TV to phones using the cellular network.

MobiTV also provides service to Alltel, US Cellular and other phone networks, as well as to AT&T for phones such as Motorola’s RAZR V3.

“The most popular mobile TV broadcast services are those that are offered without a subscription, as in Japan and South Korea,” In-Stat market research firm said in a report last month.

“However, mobile TV broadcast services are viewed by many as a way to generate revenue, so many of the mobile TV broadcast services will be subscription-based.”

Technology issues
While MediaFLO is one avenue for mobile TV to be delivered, there are others being tested in the United States, and used, especially in Europe.

The Advanced Television Systems Committee, a nonprofit organization in the U.S. that develops voluntary standards for digital TV, is working to establish a mobile handheld standard, Abraham said.

“There are standards going into trials this year that are expected to be commercially deployed next year,” said Abraham of In-Stat. “The ATSC has several technology proposals that they’re evaluating.”

Behind those proposals are more than 420 local commercial and 350 public television stations, which have formed the Open Mobile Video Coalition. The group wants an open mobile TV standard that will allow them to transmit their broadcasts directly to mobile devices, including MP3 players, portable game and DVD players, as well as cell phones.

“What we’re seeing is more and more overlapping functions among these different device categories, and a sense of overlapping functionality, allowing the user to pick the device they need, based on the context they’re in,” said Gartenberg of JupiterResearch.