But by the end of the year, the mobile phone will be well into its journey toward becoming a bona fide mass medium. Live broadcast feeds, which were pioneered in 2003, are poised to take off as more video-enabled phones circulate in the marketplace and carriers operate better networks to support them.
Wireless phone carriers have been careful to control the content placed on subscribers' mobile devices, and advertising has been minimal on handsets for fear of a consumer backlash. But streaming live feeds of content now can include commercials that have already run on TV.
"There is strong evidence that the customer sees the mobile phone as a third screen and a new medium for them," says Jeff Hallock, VP-wireless data product strategy at Sprint Corp. This spring, News Corp.'s Fox News Channel launched on Sprint TV as Fox News Channel Live. Fox News live feeds, identical to those seen on TV sets, include advertising that runs on TV.
Neither Sprint nor Fox would discuss whether or what rates were being charged the TV sponsors for, in effect, the mobile TV buy.
While some industry executives are concerned about a backlash over the advertising from consumers who are paying an additional $9.99 a month for access to the Fox channel as well as other programming, "We feel our strongest asset is to have a live feed," says Tim Carry, VP-affiliate sales and marketing at Fox News Channel. He expects people won't mind seeing ads because this "innovation is not any different from cable."
Mr. Hallock says the presence of ads underscores the fact that the mobile video experience is comparable to what users get with TV at home.
Similarly, audio versions of Major League Baseball games have gone live with ads this season, and video on mobile is expected to debut around the all-star break, executives involved in the project say.
The slow adoption of technology remains an impediment for the third screen. Of the 180 million mobile handsets in use in the U.S., only about 1 million are capable of receiving video content, according to a number of industry analysts. However, the "consumer is no longer buying a mobile phone just to make phone calls," says Paul Cushman, VP-mobile marketing at m-Qube, a mobile marketing developer.
"The mobile phone is the new on-demand environment for consumers," says Steve Yanovsky, principal at the lifestyle and communication technology company Brand Alchemy.
The concept of watching broadcasts on a mobile device is expected to get a big boost later this year when Nokia and others start selling TV phones, according to a report from Informa Telecoms & Media.
If consumers are buying new handsets to watch video, then most carriers are ready with a cornucopia of repurposed video content, such as compilations of sports highlights, news clips and short snippets of comedy programming. Occasionally, a bumper line of advertising runs along the bottom.
The carriers have adopted different strategies for their entertainment offerings. Verizon Wireless, the nation's No. 2 carrier with 45.5 million subscribers, in February premiered its V Cast service with more than 300 updated video clips daily, movie previews, mobile episodes of TV shows, music videos and sports updates, but no advertising. Offerings included made-for-mobile episodes of the Paris Hilton-Nicole Richie Fox show "The Simple Life."
Verizon executives say they consider V Cast to be similar in some ways to a broadcast network and will keep the service a "walled garden," limiting entry to only content providers that have signed deals with Verizon. Other wireless companies are more flexible about accepting content.
No. 1 carrier Cingular Wireless, with 50.4 million subscribers, and No. 3 Sprint with 26 million subscribers, offer programs via Idetic's MobiTV and other content as well.
Although third screen ratings may one day be a reality, at the moment there are few public data on what's playing on the mobile handset. Six weeks into its V Cast service, Verizon says the most popular clip was CNNToGo's news roundup. A Will Smith interview about his film "Hitch" on NBC Mobile was popular, along with an excerpt from Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
When it comes to advertising, mobile efforts need a modicum of fine tuning, along with a big dose of creativity, some experts say. "Advertising is going to have to be much more creative in the mobile channel," says Ken Hyers, principal analyst-wireless operator service at ABI Research, Oyster Bay, N.Y.
Don McGuire, chief marketing officer at Amp'd Mobile, says his startup wireless carrier believes there's a role in mobile for advertising. "We're trying to figure it out," he says.
Marketers are being advised to dip at least a toe into mobile's water. "Mobile should be part of your experimental plan," says Ridgway Hall, chief strategy officer at the Advertising Research Foundation.
And there's plenty of time to experiment before the big dealmaking begins. As C. Thomas Gruhler, exec VP-group managing director at Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson, New York, agency for Verizon, notes: "There's [still] no upfront for the Internet-the second screen."