Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Movies on cellphones

Full-length shows, even movies, growing on cellular

Forget short clips and "mobisodes." Cellphone providers are ramping up their full-episode TV offerings, from Lost to The Office, and even movies.

And the viewing experience on your phone is improving to near-broadcast-quality video (though tiny) that you can watch while waiting for the bus or in between meetings. "I definitely see it growing, especially here in the USA where, let's face it, we Americans like our video," says Forrester Research's Charles Golvin.

Today, only about 7% of mobile subscribers (cell and data) watch video on their phones, he says. But the industry is poised for major growth: Mobile video revenues at domestic carriers jumped to $308 million in the last three months of 2007 from $112 million in the same period a year earlier, according to Nielsen Mobile.

"If the pricing is reasonable, the experience is good and the selection of content is robust enough (and) it really behaves like TV, you're going to see wide adoption," Golvin says.

The latest cell provider to upgrade its television viewing options is AT&T; its live Mobile TV service launches next month with channels from CBS, Fox, NBC, Comedy Central, ESPN, MTV and Nickelodeon. AT&T customers who get one of two new phones capable of receiving the service - the LG Vu and the Samsung Access (no prices yet on phones or subscription costs) - will be able to watch full-length episodes of shows such as Lost, Grey's Anatomy, Entourage and 30 Rock. AT&T Mobile TV users also can tune in to PIX, a new movie channel from Sony Pictures that will air movies such as Bugsy, Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid and Groundhog Day.

The AT&T/Sony channel is not the first movie-cell connection. Sprint began making movies available on demand in September 2006. Earlier this month, Warner joined Sony, Paramount, Disney and Lionsgate with movies on the provider's network. "Everyone is really, really skeptical about who would want to watch movies on a little cellphone, but we are very pleasantly surprised," says Disney's Ron Schonfeld. "We entered it initially as an experiment, but we're seeing it's a real business."

Asked whether he ever thought he would see TV and movies on cellphones, 22-year industry veteran Mark Collins, vice president of consumer data at AT&T's wireless unit, says, "With networks and content distribution and devices evolving the way they are, and customers' never-ending desire for wireless experiences, nothing surprises me today."

Offerings of simulcasts and specially repackaged TV content began in 2003, when Sprint added MobiTV, a Berkeley, Calif., service then providing a dozen or so channels, including MSNBC. In 2005, Cingular (now AT&T) added the MobiTV service, which has continued to expand, adding the Disney Channel earlier this month. Verizon launched V Cast in 2006 with channels including CBS, Fox, NBC and ESPN delivered through Qualcomm's MediaFLO service. It is MediaFLO that AT&T is adding in May.

A recent viewing of Verizon's ESPN channel produced live NBA playoff video of high-enough quality to identify various players, although the scoreboard below the video was hard to read. Action was only a second or so behind the satellite TV broadcast.

Cell providers began offering episodes on demand about a year ago. Sprint's 70 "channels" include streaming video from CBS and other networks, plus more than a dozen shows, such as Desperate Housewives and CSI: New York, with usually the previous four episodes available.

"If you are on your lunch break or if you are sitting in your car waiting for your kid at soccer practice and want to watch a chapter or two, you can do that," says Sprint's Aaron Radelet.

Mobile users are willing to watch for extended periods, says Nielsen Mobile's Nic Covey. Nearly half (47%) say their average session lasts 15 minutes or longer; 25% watch 30 minutes or more.

Says Covey: "Enough consumers watch mobile video for those lengths of time and enough consumers are interested in name-brand programming that this level of mobile viewing could be just as big an opportunity as clips."

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