Will mobile television always be medium of the future?

LONDON - As the 50-inch flatscreen TV becomes a must-have for the modern home, it is hardly surprising that consultancy Deloitte has estimated the number of people watching television on their mobile phone will remain flat this year.

Broadcasters and advertising experts in the UK are divided over when and how mobile TV will reach its tipping point, but are united in their agreement that it is the broadcasting medium of tomorrow.

Determining when that tomorrow will actually arrive is a different matter. There is no doubt that the mobile phone is a vital tool for marketers - as a medium, arguably it offers the biggest and most interactive audience of any media. It already encompasses endless ad opportunities as a tool to surf the internet as well as for Bluetooth and SMS marketing.

Not surprisingly, broadcasters are keen to develop mobile TV as an advertising platform, whether through made-for-mobile video clips, viral advertising, live streaming or down-loadable shows.

However, consumer uptake has been slower than some expected and the reasons are myriad. At the root of them, as ever, is money - marketers believe broadcasters should invest in the medium, but many are reluctant to do so without ad revenue.

While many marketers might be forgiven for thinking mobile TV is old news, the volume of headlines the industry has garnered has not been matched by significant investment in research into audiences and effectiveness.

The mobile television market has been years in the making, with the earliest forms emerging in the region of three years ago, but several factors have stymied the plat-form's progress.

Virgin Mobile launched the first broadcast mobile TV service in 2006 but it was available only on one handset, the Lobster 700, and poor consumer uptake saw the venture fold after 15 months.

Uncertainty in the market means the majority of advertisers, agencies and broadcasters are adopting a wait-and-see policy on mobile TV. According to, Andy Wasef, emerging platforms director at Mediaedge:cia, the situation is a vicious circle. 'In order to have ad-funded programming, advertisers want to see viewing numbers,' he says. 'To get numbers they need to build a user base with free content, but to make content free, broad-casters need advertisers on board.'

Most mobile phones sold today are 3G- enabled, allowing access to television content. But Wasef believes the mobile phone operators have been too keen to recoup some of the costs of this technology, which has backfired. 'Operators have over-estimated what users will pay to receive this service,' he adds.

Not only has 3G capability meant financial outlay for the operator, but the technology has been criticised as a means of streaming video. The target audience, the commuter, is constantly on the move, meaning their phone's signal strength can change and adversely affect  the feed.

The BBC's hugely successful iPlayer is available on Apple's iPhone, which can run on wi-fi. Tanya Blacher, creative head of digital at Virgin Media TV, has pitched this service as the most likely victor in the battle of the mainstream broadcasters.

'The combination of compelling and rich content with its resources means it could break through first,' she says. 'But I still think it's unlikely that there will be masses of people watching a full-length soap opera on their phone.'

Agencies are seeing limited interest in advertising around mobile television, but are in little doubt this will pick up. Caroline Jones, head of mobile at Starcom, has noted increased momentum among clients.

'I had to fight to bring in clients 18 months ago, but people are much more interested now,' she says. 'Most clients are still on test budgets, but there are one or two who have embraced it.'

However, the fact that there are currently no robust case studies on blue-chip brands that have effectively used the medium is hampering its expansion. 'We don't have clients coming to us yet saying they want to be on mobile TV - they want figures and stats,' says Kieron Bourke, creative director of Mobext, the mobile specialist division of Havas. 'A few brave brands will jump in and learn about it so there is a landgrab early on. Procter & Gamble is very good at testing things. Drinks brands are always looking to inno-vate with new technology, especially if it allows them to reach 18- to 24-year-olds.'

The problems delaying the uptake of mobile TV persist. Handset manufacturers are under fire for not coming up with models with longer battery life and bigger memories, and the network operators are being called upon to devise a realistic pricing strategy.

Many marketers believe it is up to the broadcasters to invest in achieving sufficient audience before they look to invest in advertising content. Sky is arguably the most advanced player in the market, offering news and sports, starter, entertainment and music packages for a fixed monthly fee of £5 each.

Some packages are simulcasts of what a viewer would see on satellite, while others are made-for-mobile versions of the television feed. The most important thing is for them to be priced realistically.

Emma Lloyd, business development director at BSkyB, is optimistic about the prospects for mobile TV. However, she stresses the need to 'ensure we are squeezing as much as we can from 3G networks, to constantly keep improving the viewer experience'.

Channel 4 is taking more conservative action on the matter, focusing on a mobile version of its website, including video clips. Ben Lister, the channel's business development manager for mobile, wants to see an advertising model built on mobile-specific content before Channel 4 gets involved.

'Mobile television has seen limited growth because few consumers are signing up for data bundles,' he said. 'We've evolved our offering. Instead of paying 50p for a Big Brother clip, it's free with an ad at the start or end.'

Lister estimates it will be only months before C4 makes long-form content available via mobile, but argues that the channel's current tepid offering of mobile TV is due to budget constraints. 'The BBC and ITV are much bigger companies in headcount, but we've delivered what was required of us. It's probably been the right balance of supply and demand,' he says.

ITV is the only mainstream mobile channel to offer live streaming of its linear channel, ITV1, complete with ad breaks. It also offers mobile video, clips and episodes created specifically for mobile phones.

Melissa Goodwin, controller of mobile at ITV, is keen to reach viewers on multiple platforms and believes mobile content offers choice and convenience. She accepts that inadequate phone memories and short battery life 'may put some people off', but claims that handset manufacturers, networks and operators are all working on pushing mobile television forward. Goodwin also argues that it is not simply teenagers and men who watch mobile phone content. She will, she says, 'throw anything she can afford at the consumer and see what sticks'.

'You can't make assumptions about people on the mobile space,' she adds. 'We need to offer them everything and see what happens. We need to get the users to tell us what they want rather than assume they won't want something.'

There is no doubt that mobile television, will eventually be a viable advertising medium, but there is work to be done before it enjoys the success of its digital forebears. As more consumers discover the joys of an ever-improving service, agencies will be encouraged to push the medium.

Nonetheless, marketers will expect broadcasters to invest in content, research and audience before they put money into advertising. Only then will Deloitte and its peers be able to conclude better projections.

What is mobile television?

 Broadcasters and agencies all have different ways of referring to mobile television.

'Moving images on a mobile phone' can include streaming, sideloading, video on demand and user-generated content as well as made-for-mobile content called 'mobisodes'. Content is delivered via multicast, unicast or download.

In many cases, network operators have struck deals with the content providers to make content available directly to their customers.

How many people are using it?

No official numbers have been released. Frustrated agencies and marketers would like evidence that the medium is actually being used, as well as audience profiles. A report from Deloitte, published in July, said that less than 1% of the UK's population watch mobile TV. However, Sky Mobile alone has 200,000 subscribers across three mobile networks.

What does it offer advertisers?

As an advertising platform, the medium offers considerable scope for anything from animated banners and programme sponsorship to interactive ads, pre- and post-rolls and viral trailers. Advertising opportunities are similar to those available on TV, although it is expected that linear TV ads will need to be reworked to have greatest impact when viewed on a mobile.

What technology is used?

In the UK, mobile television is generally viewed via 3G, with which most mobile phones sold today are compatible. The iPhone, however, can also operate on wi-fi and so offers a smoother service. There have been calls to introduce wi-fi as the standard, but operators that have put spend into 3G technology are reluctant to do so.

How is it funded?

There is no pricing uniformity yet from either broadcasters or operators. Sky offers its service bundles for £5 a month each, while other operators offer a variety of subscription packages, such as £1 for 24 hours' access. The biggest obstacle to signing up customers is the prospect of paying a fee as well as a monthly tariff. It is notable that only streaming services require billing, as broadcasting has no data charges.

Where else is it working?

Japan is the biggest user of mobile television, followed by South Korea. Both countries operate a free service using DVB-H technology and have 68.7m and 18.2m viewers respectively. Mobile TV is also being picked up in Germany, Italy, the US and India.

Signs it might work

In 2007 Publicis Group announced the acquisition of mobile specialist PhoneValley. Havas Digital operates Mobext, a division that designs, executes and implements mobile marketing and communications campaigns, as well as working with mobile content-related projects.

Signs it might not work

In August the mobile ad firm Rhythm New Media pulled its business out of the UK amid reports that its costs per thousand were too high to attract enough interested advertisers. The company handled the ad sales and provision of video ads for Orange, T-Mobile and 3, so the closure of its UK offices does not bode well for the sector.

How much will it make and when?

In a report by Ofcom in July 2007, revenue predictions for UK mobile television in 2011 varied between £75m and more than £1.2bn, with most financial estimates falling around the £300m mark.

 

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