'I Can't Talk, I'm Watching My Cellphone'

Times Staff Writer

Dale Knoop works in a suburban office complex, a long way from the Hollywood suites where network officials greenlight new TV shows. But here he was on a recent drizzly morning, listening to a pitch for a new hip-hop channel called Pure Phat.

Knoop is in the vanguard of a rapidly changing medium that industry experts predict will transform the way we watch news and entertainment: mobile phone television.

As Sprint's manager of multimedia services, he decides what programs to offer subscribers of Sprint TV, a $9.99-per-month service that allows wireless users to watch a range of programs, including the Weather Channel and a live feed of Fox News.

"None of us work at a network," said Knoop after hearing the pitch, "but we know this is what they do."

Several years ago, watching television on your phone seemed futuristic and out of reach. But a flurry of activity by mobile phone carriers, software developers and media companies has made the idea a reality.

The technology has already generated its own lexicon -- "mobisode" and "snack TV." One production company coined a name based on the format many believe works best on a miniature screen: Two Minute Television.

With the help of MobiTV, a company based in Berkeley that prepares television feeds for transmission over wireless networks, Sprint led the way in November 2003, offering U.S. customers the first service that provided live television on their phones, albeit at sluggish speeds.

The following summer, the wireless provider upgraded to Sprint TV, a faster video-on-demand service.

Cingular, now the nation's largest wireless company, began carrying MobiTV in late January. A week later, Verizon Wireless launched its V Cast service, a regularly updated on-demand menu of news, weather and entertainment clips powered by its wireless broadband network.

Initially skeptical, broadcast and cable networks are now rushing to package content for the mobile phone -- and even developing just-for-mobile programming.

A mobile division of NBC produces as many as 20 news broadcasts a day for phone viewing, tailored for a 2-inch screen with anchor close-ups and oversized graphics. ABC is expanding a 24-hour digital news channel available on mobile phones, among other platforms. 20th Century Fox Television has launched several series of "mobisodes" -- television programs whittled into one-minute episodes.

Nowadays you can watch outtakes of "The Simple Life," get hourly updates from CNN or let Elmo and Big Bird entertain your child -- all while waiting at the doctor's office or standing in line at the grocery store.

The well-known media brands aren't the only ones getting in on the action. A slew of independent production companies, such as goTV Networks, has also cropped up, churning out made-for-mobile television content.

It's the latest evolution of what's been dubbed the third screen. Already a lucrative platform for text messages, ring tones and video games, the mobile phone is poised to become an essential part of television viewing.

The potential is on display in South Korea and Japan, where mobile phone television has taken hold. When SK Telecom began streaming live video to phones in 2001, 1 million South Korean customers signed up in the first nine months. Carriers now offer next-generation phones equipped with television transmitters, and this month a Korean company began satellite mobile TV service.

In the United States, mobile phone television is still in its infancy. Neither the wireless carriers nor the media companies, which are bound by nondisclosure agreements, would say how many Americans watched TV on their phones. They were also tight-lipped about the amount of revenue it was generating. Industry experts estimate that the number of mobile users who subscribe to a television service hovers in the hundreds of thousands.

However, many analysts expect that number to grow exponentially in the next several years as the technology improves and video-enabled phones -- priced at about $200 to $300 -- become more affordable.

Before they can expand the audience, mobile phone companies and media providers must unravel a knot of issues, including the capacity restrictions of the wireless networks, complicated copyright negotiations and, most important, the question of what customers want.

But those hurdles haven't stopped the rush among those who want to be on the edge of the newest technology.

"We don't look at it from the standpoint of its limitations today," said David Post, founder of the Two Minute Television Network, a company based in New York that has four made-for-mobile series in production, even though it has not signed a distribution deal with a wireless carrier.

"We look at it from the perspective of what it will be. Two of the most popular devices in the world are cellphones and television. Our feeling is it will be a very, very substantial marketplace."

Once-reluctant media executives are now scrambling for a mobile TV presence.

CBS, which just hired a new executive to head its digital media division, is in negotiations with wireless carriers to provide them with content. Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, VH1, Bravo and a host of other cable channels are developing original mobile content as well.

"You just don't want to be the place that sticks its head in the sand while everything else is changing," said Bravo President Lauren Zalaznick at an April 26 presentation of the network's upcoming programming.

Analysts compare the burgeoning, still unpredictable world of mobile phone television to the state of cable television in the 1970s, when the Federal Communications Commission loosened restrictions on the carriers, sparking a national expansion before cable companies even knew what customers would pay to watch.

Two years ago, the first incarnation of mobile phone television resembled a choppy slide show. Now the images zip along at about 15 frames per second -- about half that of normal TV.

Screenwriter Bob Schultz got a video-capable phone by chance seven months ago when his old phone broke and Sprint replaced it with a newer model. The idea of watching television on his phone didn't initially dazzle him.

"I don't even have cable television at home," said the 34-year-old, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Ithaca, N.Y.

But now he regularly tunes in to watch news and baseball games while sitting in the airport, waiting for cross-country flights. He and his phone often draw a crowd.

"It's really far out for a lot of folks," Schultz said. "If I'm getting a nice strong signal, people think it's the coolest thing ever."

Industry experts agree that viewers consume mobile television very differently than television in their homes. They will watch in short bursts, often in between other activities -- a kind of "snack TV."

"You're not necessarily looking to channel surf," said Linda Barrabee, senior analyst at the Yankee Group, a market research firm. "You've got five to 10 minutes to kill." But what content would motivate people to go out and buy state-of-the-art mobile phones -- and pay a premium monthly charge -- to watch television anywhere they want? No one really knows.

"It's too early to say what form of consumption of video content consumers want," said Larry Shapiro, executive vice president of business development at the Walt Disney Internet Group. "You marry that to what's the right price point they're willing to pay, and that's the $64,000 question."

A new batch of entrepreneurs is hoping to find an answer.

Two years ago, Frank Chindamo, a short-form filmmaker in Los Angeles, grew frustrated at the difficulty in distributing his movies and started producing a series of short comedic skits for mobile phone viewing, hoping to cash in on the new medium. In August, a Sprint representative saw one of his pieces at USC, where Chindamo lectures as an adjunct professor. The carrier signed him up to produce an entire channel for Sprint TV.

Currently, Chindamo's Fun Little Movies production company makes eight series and is preparing to churn out 40 shows a month. Carriers from Turkey, England and other countries have contacted him about airing his content, he said.

"Small screens mean small budgets," he said. "Thankfully, you don't need 2,000 guys on camels in the background. One guy is sufficient."

The major media companies are finding their own advantages in the new technology.

Fox Television developed "24: Conspiracy," a mobile version of the popular show "24" to kick off its new season. The 24 one-minute episodes, which featured a different cast, ran in Britain and the U.S. on Verizon phones. The studio, which plans to distribute it on phones in 23 other countries by the end of the year, has also made four original mobisode series.

And ESPN, which provides 45 minutes of made-for-mobile clips a day to the wireless carriers, is going so far as to develop its own phone. The device, which the sports network is working on with Sprint and other companies, is expected to hit the market in about a year and will be loaded with every possible permutation of ESPN's brand: live game trackers, fantasy league applications and a slew of ESPN highlights, packaged for mobile viewing.

"We believe it will benefit ESPN, but also the entire industry," said Manish Jha, senior vice president of ESPN Mobile. "It will demonstrate to everyone that cellphones are not just about talking anymore."

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