If local television news is going to survive, it will have to get out of the living room. And the den. And the kitchen. Having watched its audience shrink for years, the broadcast industry hopes to bring viewers back by taking its show on the road. But is mobile broadcasting really the answer?
So far, the evidence is not heartening. Mobile video is available from cell phone companies like Verizon, Sprint and AT&T, but, according to the research firm Nielsen Mobile, most people never watch it. "Only 36 percent of devices in the U.S. are capable of receiving mobile video," Vice President Jeff Herrmann told a conference in Barcelona. "Only about two percent [of cell phone subscribers] use it." (See "Handheld Headlines," page 24.)
Handsets aren't the only problem. Cost and content are big factors, too. Cell phone providers typically charge $15 a month extra for video services, but when it comes to local TV news, they offer almost nothing you can't get elsewhere.
A company called News Over Wireless, launched two years ago, provides on-demand video clips from more than 80 local TV stations across the country to cell phone customers with video plans. That sounds impressive, until you consider these stations make up only 10 percent of those that produce local news, according to Hofstra University's Bob Papper, who conducts an annual station survey for the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
NOW General Manager Sam Matheny says the service has already logged hundreds of thousands of views and is ahead of initial projections. But that hardly makes it a rip-roaring success for local stations that have signed up.
At WZZM-TV, the Gannett station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, News Director Tim Geraghty says far more people use his station's mobile Web service, which offers free text updates and still images, than his station's video services, both paid and free. "Some people are turned off by the notion of paying for video on a cell phone that they could see for free online after a short ad," he says.
A coalition of big media groups, including NBC, Tribune Co. and Gannett, hopes the answer may not be far off. The Open Mobile Video Coalition has been investigating technology from LG and Samsung that would untether broadcast TV, "so that consumers can watch television wherever and whenever they want."
Recent field tests in Las Vegas and San Francisco were encouraging, according to Sterling Davis, Cox Broadcasting's vice president of engineering. "We had an antenna on top of a minivan and drove around the cities, in traffic, on interstates and showed that the signal could be received reliably," Davis says. Receivers picked up the digital signal 40 miles away from the broadcast tower, at speeds up to 80 miles per hour. Sure couldn't do that on your old Sony Watchman.
The potential is obvious. Commuters could watch live traffic reports, news and weather updates on the move. And they wouldn't have to use a cell phone to get it. Any screen that delivers full motion video, from seat-back video players in cars to laptops and portable game systems, could become a mobile TV set by adding a receiver chip. Davis says the one-time cost would be "reasonable;" some estimates put it at just $10.
"Wireless TV could be a killer app," says John Eck, president of the NBC TV Network, especially for local news. Stations could use it for ongoing coverage they wouldn't put on their main channel for fear of losing audience or revenue. For example, Eck says, "WNBC in New York could have had a wireless Pope channel" when Pope Benedict XVI visited the city earlier this year, or a "crane channel" to cover recent accidents.
They wouldn't do it as a public service, of course. "We're analyzing free models and pay models to see how that might work," says Jim Conschafter, senior vice president of the Media General Broadcast Group. One possibility would be to charge a small subscription fee for video developed specifically for mobile broadcast. Everything else stations are already producing would be available free, supported by advertising.
"There's going to be a terrific business model for a small broadcaster in Middle America that doesn't want to make a big investment but can get a good solid return on mobile," Conschafter says.
How solid? According to a report from BIA Financial Network, mobile video ads could bring in $2 billion a year, which the Open Mobile Video Coalition estimates will occur by 2012. While that's not chump change, it's no windfall, either. The Television Bureau of Advertising reports local TV broadcasters lost almost that much in ad revenue last year alone.
"We look at our content and we believe it's relevant content," NBC's president of local media, John Wallace, told the New York Times. "It's just not convenient because of the way people's lives have changed with technology."
So mobile video may not be the Holy Grail TV stations have been searching for, but supporters say it has to be part of the answer to the biggest question facing local broadcast news. "We're No. 1 now," says News Over Wireless' Matheny. "What are we going to do to make sure we're No. 1 10 years from now?"