In Depth

Column: Broadcast TV: Going Mobile

The future of broadcast television is mobile.

At least that was the message at the National Association of Broadcasters’ NAB Show last week in Las Vegas.

While the 83,000 attendees at the annual convention—down about 20% from last year—encountered 3-D TV displays, super-hi-def TV and cheaper cameras everywhere on the show floor, the immediate interest for TV station managers lay in the mobile digital television exhibits.

Mobile digital television is like video on the cell phone, but there’s more to it than that. Mobile DTV lets local broadcasters harness their digital spectrum to transmit simulcasts of their existing broadcasts—news, syndicated shows, primetime programming and more—to handheld devices. That includes DVD players, portable devices for automobiles and smaller computers known as netbooks, as well as mobile phones.

As audiences shrink and advertisers defect to the Web, broadcasters—like many other media companies—are looking for new ways to reach viewers. Mobile DTV is one possibility, and broadcasters have just begun testing its potential this year.

The business model is similar to Twitter’s, however, in that it’s not yet clear. Broadcasters I talked to at the show said revenue options include advertising because they can potentially grow their audiences by reaching new viewers who’d prefer to watch TV on mobile devices.

Another option is a subscription model; that’s something mobile TV company MobiTV is currently testing.

Subscription models would include turning a cell phone into a sort of digital video recorder by letting consumers access programming from the most recent week on a mobile DTV device for a fee, MobiTV said.

Broadcasters aren’t totally sold yet. Some of the managers I talked to are skeptical. They’re concerned about asking viewers to buy or even use another device, especially after stations have spent ample time and dollars telling them to buy digital sets and digital tuners.

On the flipside, TV stations also know they need to do more to attract anyone under the age of 49, so they figure mobile DTV can lure younger viewers who favor new ways of watching TV.

The Open Mobile Video Coalition, a group of broadcasters aiming to promote the adoption of mobile DTV, announced at the show that TV stations in the Washington, D.C., market would conduct a consumer trial this summer of mobile DTV technology.

Overall, 21 broadcasters including Belo, Cox, Ion, Hearst-Argyle, NBC Universal, Post Newsweek, Scripps and Sinclair said they plan to launch mobile DTV services this year. Collectively, that includes 70 stations in 28 markets, reaching about 39% of the U.S., the OMVC said.

At NAB, I had the chance to speak to one of the broadcasters involved in the D.C. test. Allan Horlick, president and general manager of Gannett-owned CBS station WUSA-TV in D.C., said he’s keen on mobile DTV because it gives stations a better chance to reach younger viewers.

His goal with the trial is to help broadcasters figure out the best content and business model.

“This is going to be a wonderful new service that will connect us to countless new viewers of all ages,” he said.