No gold for mobile TV - yet

Staff Writer
08 Sep 2008

The Olympics have wrapped up in Beijing, and the post-mortem has begun on the impact of next-gen broadband technologies on viewership, and vice versa.

Preliminary reports are declaring the Olympics a web smash success.

Official broadcaster NBC claimed that by August 22 almost ten million viewers had watched over 56 million online videos - 20 times more than the 2004 Games in Athens. More interestingly, the International Olympic Committee's comparatively liberal attitude to video licensing on the web - to include its deal with YouTube - has been credited by some analysts as a major contributor to the boost in online viewership. If nothing else, it indicates that pre-game fears over internet piracy of video clips were overblown.

Similarly, mobile TV players have been quick to give themselves gold medals. Ratings firm Nielsen claim that 858,000 people in the US alone tuned into NBC's coverage of the opening ceremonies via a mobile device. Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA) reported a 2.1% rise in phone shipments for June (a fairly significant number in a saturated market like Japan), which was attributed to demand for 1seg ISDB-T handsets for the Olympics, according to the Yomiuri Shimbun.

In Australia Telstra - which offered an Olympics mobile TV package - said it had exceeded its subscriber target by 50% by the end of the first week (albeit without mentioning just what its initial target was). And in China - where TD-SCDMA was launched in part to provide CMMB-powered mobile TV for select Olympics fans - China Mobile said that over 200,000 users watched the opening ceremonies via mobile, and as of August 19, over a million of them had watched various events, according to state-run content partner CCTV.

Making it pay

All of which sounds impressive. And to a point, it is. But the story isn't in the numbers - at least the numbers reported so far. Apart from being over-generalized and self-congratulatory, all they really tell us is what we already learned during the 2006 FIFA World Cup - live broadcasts of must-see sporting events can draw a mobile audience. Fine, but the real question remains: will people tune in between the big-name tournaments‾

The long-term answer is, 'Sure, probably,' though this depends on who you ask and where you ask them. By most accounts, mobile TV has had trouble gaining decent traction in the US and Europe, and its touted success in Asia has been arguably overhyped. In Japan, MBCO's MobaHo! is shutting down next March, having signed up a measly 100,000 subs since 2004. Korea has fared somewhat better, but not in terms of profitability. Both satellite-based TU Media and its six terrestrial-based competitors are reportedly losing money, according to media reports.

That said, mobile TV is far from doomed. Personally, I have seen enough people watching sideloaded video on laptops, PSPs and iPhones to believe that the potential audience is there, as is the device capability (battery life notwithstanding). The top challenges, it seems, are finding a business model that pays off, and delivering a satisfying user experience.

The former seems to be veering toward a free-content model, which could be helped considerably by the rise of mobile TV ratings systems that will give advertisers the audience data they need to justify their ad spend.

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