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Producing for Mobile a Specialty

Apr 30, 2007  •  Post A Comment

The marketplace perception that producing programming for mobile phones simply means repurposing existing content is dead wrong.

Mobile TV is ditching its training wheels and emerging as a fully formed TV distribution source in its own right. As programmers strike advertising deals and expand their carriage with additional wireless providers, they’re also learning what is needed behind the scenes when it comes to producing mobile TV content.

Serious mobile programmers are devoting staffs and technical resources to the new business of mobile TV production. They’re doing it because consumers are using their phones more frequently to view videos and because advertisers are warming up to the notion of placing ads on mobile phones.

Ads on Phones

NBC Universal plans to start selling ads for its mobile content in the upfront starting next month. Verizon launched its broadcast-quality mobile video service from MediaFLO earlier this year and Viacom Networks’ MTV and Comedy Central recently sold ads against mobile content to Pepsi and Intel.

An inside look at two mobile programmers illustrates the processes and challenges in producing content for mobile phones.

NBC Universal has been aggressively developing and introducing programming for mobile phones. It’s been programming news content for a few years on mobile devices via its NBC News 2Go channel, a live channel programmed specifically for mobile phones on Verizon, with Cingular to launch the channel soon. NBCU also produces original mobile content and offers some of its prime-time programming on MobiTV and Verizon phones.

Then there’s GoTV Networks, which produces a suite of thematic channels solely for mobile phones.

NBC broadcasts its mobile TV programming from a mini-control room on the second floor of Rockefeller Center in New York. “We want to use the technology to help make this business be about programming rather than about the production,” said Salil Dalvi, general manager for wireless platforms at NBC Universal. “We have to be in a position to deliver the right programming to the right people at the right time. From a consumer perspective, what that means is deciding what content is relevant to consumers on this platform, and the second thing is deciding what time of day to deliver the programming, either a linear offering or on-demand.”

Transmitting mobile programming isn’t that different technologically from delivering traditional on-air shows, Mr. Dalvi said. While NBC does produce some original content, most of its mobile programming stems from existing shows such as “Today” and news programming on MSNBC and CNBC.

The most important part is managing the programming on a minute-by-minute basis, especially when it comes to news, he said.

Recent Challenge

Take the case of the Virginia Tech shooting earlier this month. That news story demonstrated how NBCU and other media companies must increasingly treat their mobile units as true news divisions.

“You need people to monitor it,” Mr. Dalvi said. “You need a middle layer of editorial decision-making.”

Much of that decision-making falls to Beth O’Connell, executive producer of wireless and radio for NBC News.

On most days, NBC News 2Go carries “Today” from 7-10 a.m.; it then switches to MSNBC for two hours and then to CNBC’s “Power Lunch” at noon.

However, as the VT shooting story unfolded, Ms. O’Connell had to make the same decisions that on-air news directors made to stick with coverage. In her case, she opted not to carry “Power Lunch” and to stay with MSNBC’s news coverage. She also instructed her operations staff to break in with all of Brian Williams’ special reports.

That evening NBC News 2Go continued to deliver MSNBC and NBC news content rather than toggle back to CNBC’s end-of-day market wrap-up coverage as the mobile channel usually does.

Because NBC News 2Go does not carry commercials, that airtime was filled with evergreen news stories. “We had to make sure any of that content was sensitive and serious,” she said. “We recalled anything humorous or funny, or celebrity interviews.”

“Our strategy from the beginning has been to create mobile content customized for the phone,” she said.

Encoding Important

While GoTV Networks does produce daily news reports for some of its mobile channels, an important production focus is on ensuring the content is shot and encoded properly for mobile carriers, since 75 percent of its programming is original. The other 25 percent is provided through partnerships with other media outlets such as Univision, ABC and G4. GoTV content is available through AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel, Helio and Boost Mobile.

Shots need to be evenly lit and with few color gradations, which can increase the file size for encoding, explained Tom Ellsworth, chief operating officer for GoTV.

“Preparing for encoding becomes an art direction and production necessity. When you encode a particular video, you are encoding it because you are trying to get the size of that file down so it plays on the handset device,” Mr. Ellsworth said.

A well-lit, solid-color backdrop will look far better on a mobile phone than an expanse of trees, with its variety of colors and tones. “There is so much going on in that frame, and when it goes into the file size for the phone, the image becomes blurry and starts to bleed and the sharpness goes away,” he said.

GoTV manages its content production in-house, encoding video in various formats for carriers, transmitting that video and then processing any consumer requests to view the video. GoTV’s system automatically detects the type of phone and the file size each phone can handle before transmitting to a consumer.

“The buttons, the display size, the user interface-every phone is different,” Mr. Ellsworth said. “Mobile television is harder than it looks.”