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Dialling a small screen switch

Dialling a small screen switch
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First Published: Mon, Jun 25 2007. 12 10 AM IST
Updated: Mon, Jun 25 2007. 12 10 AM IST
The small screen is all set to become even smaller. Television broadcasters are eyeing ways to reach mobile phone users. For some time now, downloads of video clips of TV programmes have been available, both for mobile phones and computer screens. Soon, it will be possible to view entire live telecasts of programmes on mobile phones.
It’s early days yet, and while the technology part has been more or less ironed out, broadcast and content strategies need to be worked out. And nobody is quite sure how popular the concept of TV on mobile will be.
MTV is among the first television channels to experiment with the content suitable for this new medium. It recently launched MMFs (multimedia mobile films)—short-format, quirky, unpredictable films which can be viewed on GPRS-enabled mobile sets or Reliance phones by text messaging “MMF” to 6882. MTV airs two-thirds of these films on TV, while the remaining part can be viewed on mobiles every Saturday at 7.30pm.
Prasar Bharati, the public broadcaster, has taken the first steps on the technology side. Last month, without much fanfare, India joined the select club of countries which have commercial television broadcasting for hand-held or mobile devices. Prasar Bharati has started beaming eight TV channels, including news and sports and a few in regional languages such as Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi and Tamil, which can be accessed within a 12km radius of New Delhi’s Connaught Place. And the transmission meets the specifications of the international digital video broadcast hand-held (DVB-H) standards. This standardization helps broadcasters and handset makers to synchronize the technical features required for such transmission.
India is only the fourth country to join the DVB-H club. Luckily for Doordarshan (Prasar Bharati’s broadcast arm), the DVB-H is a variant of the old terrestrial DVB standard, which it had followed to deliver four digital channels in the four metros in 2002.
Says L.V. Sharma, chief engineer, Doordarshan: “Our TV-on-mobile service was a good way to reuse some of the old equipment from our earlier attempt to launch a digital TV service for homes.” This earlier offering had few takers. The target audience already had access to a variety of channels through cable and could not be persuaded to buy the DVB receivers to access four DD channels.
Media watchers say the TV-on-mobile project may meet a similar fate. To begin with, the cheapest and the only DVB-H device available in India is a high-end Nokia phone with a price tag of more than Rs30,000. That limits the market considerably. Then, there is the question whether people will enjoy watching full-length TV programmes on small mobile screens, and for how long.
Apart from doubts over participation, broadcasters are yet to arrive at a suitable delivery model. While subscriptions are the most obvious route to take, the pricing of such services and cost-sharing with the telecom service providers are still grey areas.
The revenue model, experts agree, will have to be based on other sources, rather than just ads. “It is still too early,” says Jawahar Goel, Zee Group’s head for distribution services. “We are at least a year away from even a serious business model for hand-held broadcasting. And without a business model, no private player will enter the business.” Goel’s group is the country’s largest television programming distributor, which owns both an extensive cable network as well as the country’s largest direct-to-home (DTH) satellite service. Even if the group were interested, no private player can launch a ground-based wireless TV broadcasting service because the government is yet to formalize a policy for such transmission. Goel, however, is not complaining. “Where is the market?” he asks.
Such scepticism, however, was evident before the launch of the highly successful phone models that receive FM stations, too. Many media watchers had argued that there would be few takers for such devices, given the declining number of radio listeners. But now, even low-range handsets come equipped with radio receivers and most mobile users keep their earphones handy.
Like Vidya Sadanandan, a second year student at KC College in South Mumbai. She started listening to FM during her hour-long commutes on the local train from her home in the city’s western suburb of Borivli. “I hardly used to listen to radio before, but now I skip TV and listen to radio for at least two hours a day,” Vidya says. “I wish I could watch TV on my mobile,” she adds. That is good news for DD.
International trends seem positive. Forecasts by Parks Associates, a US-based market research and consulting firm, say that by 2010, 6% of all mobile users, or 15 million people, will subscribe to mobile TV in the US, generating revenues of $1.6 billion (about Rs6,500 crore). In Japan and South Korea, 5.8 million people are already watching TV on mobile phones, with even more people watching TV on other hand-held devices and via in-car systems. In Italy, there are 500,000 subscribers for the newly launched mobile TV services run by Vodafone in conjunction with Sky Italia.
In the Indian market, the cost of handsets may prove to be a stumbling block for TV on mobile but not, perhaps, for too long. Most handset makers such as Nokia Oyj, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd, Motorola Inc., LG Electronics Inc. and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB have already announced plans to introduce DVB-enabled phones and mediaplayers (Philips has even brought out a DVB-H plug-in card for laptops).
“By next year, the cost of DVB-H enabling a handset will be around €7 (about Rs385),” says Pawan Gandhi, Philips’ head for Mobile TV and Video for the Asia Pacific. “With that kind of economics, digital broadcast TV will become a default feature on most of our new models with a price tag of Rs15,000 or more next year,” he points out. The first such low-cost model, the N77, will hit the Indian market by the end of the month, with a price tag of Rs18,000.
“It costs less to bring out a model with all the bells and whistles than to bring out a number of handsets with a selection of features. The re-engineering cost would negate any price advantage the consumer would have got by sacrificing DVB-H or any other feature,” Gandhi says.
Logistics apart, TV on mobile would mean major structural changes for both content providers and distributors. To start with, broadcast agreements will have to be re-worked to factor in a new medium. Says Kaushal Modi, head, licensing and telephony, Sony Entertainment Television: “Minor issues such as rewriting agreements for content to include distribution over a hand-held device will have to be thrashed out.”
He, however, is one of the “optimists. Even if only a fifth of the Rs15,000-plus phones expected to be sold next year tune into TV, it still means an extra two million eyeballs at almost no cost to the broadcaster,” he says.
For distributors, things are a bit more complex. The challenge will be to invest in transmission equipment and recoup the amount from consumers and advertisers. In Italy, the only country with a year-long history of broadcasting for hand-helds, there is a mixed model, involving a monthly fee and ad revenues.
Ashok Mansukhani, president, corporate affairs, Hinduja TMT, one of India’s largest content redistributors with a large cable network in the metros, points out that broadcasters, too, will need a subscription-based service. If a channel is provided to home audiences at a cost, it cannot be given to a mobile audience for free, he says. “But we can add mobile TV charges to the home TV bill,” he adds. Even if issues of distribution are addressed, specialized content will play the most critical role in the success of TV on mobile. The DVB-H trials, conducted by Nokia and the International Strategies for Digital Media, a Germany-based market research agency, show a markedly different consumption pattern for the mobile screen TV.
Viewership happens in bits and pieces, and content that does not require uninterrupted attention, such as music videos, short films and news, is more likely to succeed than movies or long documentaries.
Apart from shorter programmes, TV on mobile might bring about a radical change in the very approach to TV. T.N. Prabhu, director for India for the Walt Disney Internet Group, sees a natural transformation of TV from a “family experience” to a personal one. While personal TV can also mean a TV in your bedroom, Prabhu’s vote goes for the pocket device as the worthy companion to a central home TV. “The best opportunity is on the mobile platform today. It is already a personal device,” he says, “(Also, it is the) biggest boredom-breaker during travel.”
Agrees Keertan Adyanthaya, vice-president, digital media, MTV Network: “We have stopped believing in the one-screen theory a long time ago.”
Personalization of a medium is good news for advertisers as it will help them target niche audiences. Says Rajiv Hiranandani, co-founder and country head of contests2win, a mobile content and marketing company: “Once 3G services become available, there will be a lot of ways in which brands could place their messages on mobile TV. One could be brand placements within the content and the other option could be ad-supported content.”
This practice, of brands sponsoring downloads, is popular in the US and Europe. Consumers can download information or TV programmes for free or at a discount in return for watching a 30-50 second commercial.“We are, in fact, already talking to companies on the ad-funded content option,” says Hiranandani.
As Nokia’s Gandhi says, TV on mobile will force both broadcasters as well as advertisers to rethink strategies. Unlike traditional TV, TV on mobile will facilitate interactivity. It will allow a “return path” through which the receiver, or the consumer, can send user information back to the broadcaster. Also, like the Internet, it is possible, with the viewers’ permission, to install cookie-like programmes over the air that relay information about the person’s viewing preferences and use that information to customize ads, Gandhi points out.
sreejiraj.e@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Jun 25 2007. 12 10 AM IST