Restricted vision?

Vodafone's 3G customers can now watch Sky shows on their handset. Will anyone be tuning in, asks Jeremy Lee.

The prospect of watching blurred TV clips on a tiny mobile phone screen might not sound like the vanguard of the media convergence revolution, but it is a vision that broadcasters and mobile phone companies are hoping will be compelling enough to extend the reach of their respective brands.

Last week, Sky and Vodafone announced a partnership that will enable subscribers to the Vodafone Live! 3G network to watch a selection of TV channels on their mobile handsets.

Sky Mobile TV will initially offer 19 channels, including Sky News, Sky Movies, MTV, Cartoon Network and The Biography Channel. Unlike some smaller-scale 3G TV experiments, it will have decent penetration, with 72% coverage of the UK.

The service will be offered free to Vodafone's 250,000 3G customers until January, after which a £5 monthly charge will be applied.

A few days after the announcement of the tie-up, Channel 4 declared that it too would be launching a mobile TV channel, featuring edited versions of programmes including Grand Designs, Brat Camp and Supernanny.

According to the broadcaster, this initiative is the first of several planned steps toward becoming a leading mobile-content provider.

Sales drive
For Vodafone, the Sky Mobile TV partnership forms a key part of its drive to increase sales of 3G phones in the run-up to Christmas. Sky, meanwhile, views the partnership as a way of ensuring that its content is distributed across the widest range of platforms, a strategy that also drove last month's £211m acquisition of broadband TV company Easynet.

The Sky Mobile TV package comprises live broadcasts as well as made-for-mobile content. The feeds for the Sky News, CNN, Bloomberg and Sky Sports News channels will be the same as those airing on television, including the ad breaks.

The other, primarily entertainment, channels will show made-for-mobile content in a short-form model, which will be played on a continuous loop throughout the day, but will not include any advertising.

The partnership is not the first time that Vodafone and Sky have dabbled in distributing content over mobile phones, but it does mark the most extensive content deal to date.

Vodafone, which launched its 3G service last November, has been able to offer downloadable content such as Premiership football goals for some time. Earlier this year its 3G subscribers were able to watch the feed for Channel 4's Big Brother for a £1 daily fee; the mobile operator claims it was the success of this initiative that prompted it to widen the offering. However, it would not release figures for the number of people who sampled the coverage.

Sky has been at the forefront of offering a news service via mobile, whether by SMS or WAP, for some years. It is also involved in O2's DVB-H (digital video broadcasting-handheld) trial in Oxford - a mobile variant of digital broadcasting technology - and plans to extend Sky Mobile TV to other network operators after its exclusive supply deal with Vodafone expires in March.

Filling a need?
While Vodafone sees the TV service as a way to potentially recoup some of the billions it spent on acquiring its 3G licence, and Sky will benefit from another platform as well as getting its brand in front of younger viewers, the appeal for the consumer is less obvious.

Keeping up with live sport and news coverage while on the move obviously has its attractions. It is also no coincidence that Sky has launched the service to coincide with the start of the England cricket team's Test series in Pakistan - even if trying to spot the whereabouts of a small red ball on a palm-sized screen will present challenges of its own.

However, the short-form programmes being touted, such as edited highlights of Sky One's popular-science show Brainiac or interviews with film stars puffing their latest release on Sky Movies, are a rather less inspiring proposition.

Viewing occasions
It is understandable that smaller snippets of shows might be more suitable for the type of occasions that people are most likely to turn to their mobile phones for entertainment; while sat on the train or waiting at the bus stop, for example. But there are serious questions about whether the content will be compelling enough to watch.

Justin Gibbons, director of strategic services at media agency PHD, is sceptical about Sky Mobile TV's appeal. 'I can't see that people will get hooked on this,' he says. 'Using mobile TV to kill dead time is one thing, but it won't get you coming back for more.'

He also questions whether the size of screen and mobile phones' battery life will make the viewing experience worth bothering with in the first place.

It is too early to say what the implications of mobile TV ads are for advertisers. Sky is not yet attempting to quantify the value of mobile TV viewers and BARB is not geared up to measure the audience size. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that this will form the next part of Sky Mobile TV's business plan.

If Sky and Vodafone are serious about making a viable business of Sky Mobile TV, they may have to come up with something more substantial than the current offering to convince consumers that a £5 monthly subscription is a price worth paying and that the viewers have a value to advertisers.

As with internet broadcasting, the issue of programming distribution rights is likely to thwart their efforts in the short to mid-term. It is difficult not to see mobile TV, in its present form at least, as a way of cross-promoting the broadcasters' existing TV shows, rather than offering an alternative viewing experience.

DATA FILE - SKY MOBILE TV

NEWS, SPORT AND FACTUAL CHANNELS

Sky News, CNN, Bloomberg, Sky Sports News, At The Races, Discovery Factual, National Geographic Channel, The History Channel.

ENTERTAINMENT AND MUSIC CHANNELS

Sky One, Sky Movies, MTV (two channels), Living TV, Discovery Lifestyle, Nickelodeon, Paramount Comedy, Cartoon Network, Bravo, The Biography Channel.

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