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Cellphones Source of Convention News

Jul 25, 2004  •  Post A Comment

When the Democratic National Convention starts today, television networks and stations will largely offer scaled-back coverage, but consumers will be able to get gavel-to-gavel coverage from an unlikely place-their cellphones.

ABC News Now, ABC’s 24-hour broadband and wireless channel, said it plans to stream wirelessly over mobile phones live coverage from the Democratic gathering-and the Republican convention next month-for the first time ever.

Despite subdued interest in convention coverage from traditional sources, ABC’s efforts speak to the value that programmers are starting to place in the emerging delivery platform of video-over-wireless devices. In fact, sister network ESPN said it plans to introduce a video product for mobile phones in about six months, the first such offering for the sports network in the United States. In addition, Court TV plans to participate in market trials to test a mobile video service, while Turner Networks said it will introduce a wireless video product this year. NBC just introduced a mobile video service for its news content.

That’s because technology from the next generation of mobile handsets, which should begin to reach the marketplace in about six months, should dramatically change the way video is sent over phones, from about three frames per second today to about 15 frames per second. Television is delivered at 30 frames per second.

“Fifteen frames per second will be very significant for fast-moving content like sports content,” said Bernard Gershon, senior VP and general manager of ABC News Digital Media Group. “Mobile video is where broadband video was two to three years ago. It was kind of jerky and not a terrific experience, but it dramatically improved and that’s what will happen to wireless.”

The expected transition to new technology here, as download speeds rise to 300 to 500 kilobits per second up from anywhere between 10 to 40 kilobits today, will change the experience. “The first-generation stuff was more like a slideshow,” said Manish Jha, senior VP and general manager, emerging media, at ESPN. “We think we can deliver a very high-quality experience and help carriers leverage our brand,” he said.

ESPN has reason to be encouraged. Its BottomLine service, which delivers ESPN’s ticker data and sports scores to mobile phones, priced at $4 a month, now counts 50,000 customers after its initial introduction six months ago. That figure is illustrative of consumer desire to consume content from multiple devices, Mr. Jha said, since sports scores are available in so many places in addition to cellphones, including the TV or Internet. “There is appetite for this,” he said.

But mobile phone video won’t supplant TV watching, he added. The platform is expected to be most attractive to people on the go, in a similar fashion to how Blackberries and other mobile content devices have become popular. “It’s interesting to see how consumers are adopting cellphones as not just talk devices but as a media terminal,” he said. ESPN introduced its first mobile video service in Scandinavia for the X Games in January this year.

The ESPN video product here in the United States will differ from the television channel. It will include news, analysis, commentary and highlights but will not be a repurposed version of the on-air channel. “It will be a very thin slice of what you would see on TV if it’s duplicated at all,” Mr. Jha said. ESPN has not yet determined a pricing model for the service.

According to a report from Merrill Lynch, there were 157 million cellphone subscribers in the United States at the end of last year. That’s up from 69 million at the end of 1998. That number is projected to grow to 182 million by the end of 2005.

Other new activity in the mobile video space comes from MobiTV, a mobile phone video service that launched in November 2003 and now delivers content from 21 channels, such as MSNBC, ABC News Now and Discovery, to Sprint PCS users. Last week the mobile service, priced at $10 per month, added three new channels tailored specifically for its service from Fox Interactive Media, NBC Universal and Comedy Time, a comedy network geared for wireless handsets.

Fox Sports content includes clips from “The Best Damn Sports Show Period” and “Beyond the Glory” as well as other material, while NBC News has created custom content for the wireless space, said Paul Scanlan, co-founder and VP, marketing, at Idetic, which delivers the MobiTV service.