But Is Anyone Actually Watching?

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The deals: Service providers are brokering deals to offer video content on cell phones.

The result: With fewer than 1 million U.S. consumers possessing the ability to view streaming video on their cell phones, content is mostly still just a technology showcase for carriers.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Wireless providers have recently sent out a wave of new viewable content for mobile phones, but an early look
Even industry evangelists think consumers would only be willing to watch video on small mobile phone screens for a few mintues at a time.

at what customers are watching shows that it’s pretty much the same thing they’re viewing on their TV or PC screens. And then there's question of just how many are actually watching anything.

No Nielsen-like stats yet

Carriers have yet to start providing Nielsen-like ratings on what types of video programming or clips are being downloaded the most on cell phones. But Verizon Wireless last month said that during the first six weeks of its new V Cast service, customers tuned into news, entertainment, sports and weather clips. For example, the most watched clip on CNNToGo was a roundup of news stories called Now in the News. The most watched video on NBC Mobile was a Will Smith interview about his role in the film Hitch.

Other popular programs included clips from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart, and a duet between Ray Charles and Elmo that appeared on Sesame Street.

On the sports front, ESPN's most-watched daily video program was Friday Playback, while the most-watched NBA game highlight video was the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers game that took place March 2 in Boston.

Of all cities, the most viewed AccuWeather forecast on V Cast was for Los Angeles.

Mobisode of '24'

Verizon Wireless reported that its own V Cast Showcase Channel was the most popular destination in the entertainment category. In the "mobisode" category, 24: Conspiracy, a series of short dramatic episodes based on the Fox series, proved most popular.

Less successful were two mobile episdoes developed by Twentieth Television and Verizon Wireless for the mobile screen: Love and Hate and The Sunset Hotel. While the Hotel mobisodes were scripted, Love and Hate is an improvised soap opera that follows the lives of a fictitious family over six months. It also introduced a new production approach dubbed "manipulated reality," where cast members work without a script and involve everyday citizens in improvised performances. As opposed to 24, the two other projects don’t have an on-air presence to help with marketing to attract mobile viewers.

Verizon Wireless last month debuted a mobisode based on Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie's The Simple Life to target young viewers. The one-minute programs, with original footage, centers on the pair's Greyhound East Coast bus trip. In stops along the way, they use their mobile phones to stay in touch. A Verizon Wireless spokeswoman said the carrier does not intend to regularly update V Cast ratings.

Major League Baseball games

"Big news stories, election returns, the playoffs" are pulling in viewers so far, said Philip Alvelda, CEO of Idetic's MobiTV, which provides live streaming TV content to mobile phones. He said live content is the killer application for mobile TV. MobiTV will get plenty of that action later this year when the live coverage of Major League Baseball games becomes available as video to mobile customers.

In addition to live content, "time to kill" entertainment, particularly comedy and music, are drawing mobile viewers. Mr. Alvelda, however, declined to discuss how many viewers the programming drew.

Whatever the ratings, they are tiny.

Fewer than 1 million U.S. consumers have the ability to view streaming content on their cell phones, according to Seamus McAteer, senior analysts at M:Metrics. "It's a technology showcase more than anything else for a lot of carriers," he said.

Creating 'walled gardens'

Most wireless service providers are using content as a means of differentiation, with some, such as Verizon Wireless, using its V Cast offerings as a way to create what the industry dubs a "walled garden." Other carriers, such as Sprint and Cingular, are lacing their offerings with streaming video through services such as MobiTV.

Independent providers of content, meanwhile, are looking for ways of breaking into the walled garden, making it possible for cell phone users to buy content from a variety of sources, using a model similar to shopping on the Web from retailers.

While one carrier may have a walled approach to video, it may be more open to game providers. In Europe, for example, adult programming, ring tones and wallpaper are popular mobile content. In the U.S., carriers have stayed away from adult content to prevent public relations headaches.

Optimal viewing time: one minute

Those strategic content-related issues aren't the only ones the nascent industry faces. Many experts are debating just how long viewers will stare at their small screens to watch a mobile program. One minute is thought to be optimal, while five minutes is the maximum. Very few think an entire half-hour TV program or full-length movie would be possible or would even appeal to customers. The current philosophy behind mobile phone content is that its primary purpose is to entertain during brief downtime breaks, say, while waiting for a bus or between meetings.

However, Lucy Hood, senior vice president of content and marketing at News Corp., said the one-minute rule will eventually be broken. Studies of consumers watch cell phones found "they hold the phone pretty close; it's an intimate, different viewing experience" from watching a movie in a theater or a TV in the family room, she said. Content providers need to crack the code on reaching out on the small screen. Then, a number of types of drama can expand into longer form.

Until that can happen, the industry must still deal with technology issues in the form of screen quality and battery life.

But video isn't the only content being impacted by the mobile screen.

Music programs

Cingular Wireless this week launched a new mobile music program, "Cingular Sounds," which allows music artists to generate some buzz for new releases through ring tones released either concurrently or before the music is heard on traditional outlets.

British group Coldplay's single "Speed of Sound" is one of the first to be released via the "third screen." Other music will be breaking in connection with Cingular's business partnerships with EMI Music, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, Warner Music and Universal Music Group.

"What this is most of all is symbolic of the importance of this channel," said John Burbank, vice president of marketing. He said Cingular Sounds would be promoted separately with a TV and print campaign. Billings were undisclosed.
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