OMVC: Mobile Can Reverse Digital Attrition

By Arthur Greenwald

“This is a big idea but the concept is simple,” said Brandon Burgess, chairman of the Open Mobile Video Coalition and Ion Media Networks. “There are only 114 million American living rooms but up to 500 million more sites where people can watch mobile TV. Mobile TV has the potential to reassemble segments of the audience that have been lost to digital attrition.”

Burgess was addressing the OMVC’s highly promoted breakfast session at the NAB Show, where NAB CEO David Rehr welcomed attendees by declaring mobile DTV to be “a tremendous opportunity for our business. The revenue upside is probably greater than we can imagine.”

But like the session which followed, the declaration was long on strategic optimism but short on specific business models.

Fox Business Channel anchor Liz Claman, a veteran of local and network news, began the session by holding up a DTV-enabled LG mobile phone displaying her sister network Fox News Channel and pronounced the picture quality “amazing.”

Panelists included Burgess, NBC Network President John Eck, Gannett Broadcasting President Dave Lougee, Fisher Communications CEO Colleen Brown, LG Electronics Mobile DTV Business Development chief Robert Rast, Samsung VP of Public Affairs John Godfrey, and Dell Computer Mobile TV Technical Strategist James Clardy.

Although clear business models are clearly a way off, the OMVC’s optimism sounds well-justified. Burgess announced commitments to roll out trial consumer mobile DTV service in three major cities: in Atlanta on Gannett’s WAGA, in Seattle on Belo’s KING, and in Washington on NBC O&O WRC.

Burgess’s optimism about potentially huge numbers of mob receivers was echoed and amplified by Dell’s Clardy. “The typical American living room already has multiple devices,” said Clardy, adding that mobile receivers in the home can add revenue-generating functionality as a “second screen” to a larger set.

Clardy also demonstrated a new mobile DTV-enabled Dell netbook priced under $450. LG’s Robert Rast showcased three DTV-ready mobile phones plus a Kenwood automotive entertainment center designed to add aftermarket DTV to the backseats of cars and minivans everywhere.

“Even if all we had done was put digital TV in these devices that would be exciting,” said Samsung’s John Godfrey. “But these are devices consumers are already used to interacting with — and we’ve built in broadcast interactivity. This will open the door to new biz models for broadcasters.”

Just when those business models will become clear, nobody seemed willing to day. Asked by TVNewsday whether cellphone carriers would demand payment before allowing the insertion of mobile DTV chops in the millions of handsets they distribute, Fisher CEO Brown would say only: “We’re working towards the business model. Everyone sees this as an extension of their business. This is a value-added opportunity.” NBC’s Eck insisted that “conversations with the carriers have been received cordially.”

Asked by Claman whether Sprint, for example, would consider mobile DTV a threat to its much-touted 4G video services, Dell’s Clardy said the 4G signal is “relatively poor” and inefficient compared to the one-to-many clarity of mobile DTV. Besides, added Samsung’s Godfrey, mobile TV places no burden on the carrier’s network, freeing them to more fully monetize their bandwidth as a lucrative interactive return path.

“Yes we have to figure out how best to monetize it,” said Burgess, “but it’s very feasible and very synergistic.”

Turning the conversation back to broadcasters, Burgess likened this moment in mobile DTV history as “like 1998 for video on the Internet. If you want to get 100 percent service levels it will take a little investment,” which Burgess estimated to be about $100,000 for the necessary hardware, a figure he believes “will surprise broadcasters because it is so affordable.”

Following the panel, NBC’s Eck addressed another frequent business model concern — whether local affiliates will be allowed to transmit network primetime shows over mobile DTV. “Everybody wants the extra revenue. We’re working on the business model.”

Eck reported that NBC’s cable networks are likewise comparing the best avenues for distributing their cable network content over mobile DTV. Possibilities include licensing specific shows to broadcast affiliates or licensing entire networks to cable programming aggregators like SES Americom, which have already leased local broadcast DTV signals. “We already have exclusive contracts in place with our present [cable and satellite] distributors,” said Eck, “so that’s one more thing we’re going to work out.

None of the panelists expressed concern that the present economy would impede the ambitious rollout schedule for mobile DTV devices or services. Indeed, Samsung’s Eck told TVNewsday that the slowdown might actually help mobile DTV. “It gives us a chance to roll out products just a little more slowly and know we’re getting it right.”