Networks serving up digital TV to go


First there was digital television. Now comes mobile digital TV.

Designed to let viewers watch TV on the go, mobile DTV is the network television industry’s answer to a generation that’s often more likely to watch YouTube on their iPhones than the TV in their living rooms.

Since the first U.S. broadcast in 1928, TV signals largely have been limited to sets that sit still. This year, however, local stations across the country will begin transmitting a new type of signal that can be picked up by devices that travel, including laptops, smart phones, portable DVD players and mini-tablets -- all of which are to be showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show starting Thursday in Las Vegas.

“We need to follow our consumers,” said Brandon Burgess, chief executive of Ion Media Networks Inc. in New York, which owns 59 broadcast TV stations, including KPXN-TV Channel 30 in San Bernardino. “The trends are clear that mobile devices are where consumers will be getting video. We want to be there to bring digital pictures out of the living room. That makes us more relevant to the 21st century.”

Watching live TV shows on the go isn’t entirely new.

In the 1980s, Sony Corp. sold the Watchman, a portable TV set that gained a degree of popularity with some consumers who liked to take them to sporting events. A handful of cars also came with little TVs in the back, but the reception was generally poor and the technology never took off.

Today a number of companies offer popular shows over portable devices, mainly cellphones. MobiTV Inc. of Emeryville, Calif., for example, has been piping TV shows to cellphones since 2003.

And San Diego computer chip company Qualcomm Inc. since 2007 has offered its Flo TV subscription service through AT&T and Verizon, and as of last month via a $249 device called the Flo TV Personal TV.

What’s different about the latest offering is its price: free.

Instead of paying from $7 to $15 a month to subscribe to Flo TV or MobiTV, mobile DTV will be transmitted directly by local broadcasters for free, at least for now.

About 800 TV stations covering 103 million U.S. homes are backing the effort.

Other broadcasters supporting the initiative include Gannett Co., News Corp.’s Fox television stations, Univision Communications, Sinclair Broadcast Group and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, among others.

Eighty TV stations covering 38% of U.S. households have said they will roll out mobile DTV signals by the end of the year, including Ion, Univision and NBC Universal Inc., which have Los Angeles stations.

Thirty stations have already started, such as Capitol Broadcasting Co.’s WRAL in Raleigh, N.C., which is testing the technology to broadcast news and ads on flat-panel TVs mounted in three city buses.

For broadcasters, the effort is a way to woo a new generation of viewers who are more apt to catch last night’s “Late Show With David Letterman” on their laptops.

“Consumers want a greater level of control over what they watch, where they watch it and when,” said Charles Golvin, a technology analyst with Forrester Research. “The concept of tuning in is almost an anachronism.”

Mobile DTV, at least at first, will be able to deliver on only the “where” part of the equation, giving viewers a chance to lock in to local TV signals from portable devices that can be carted around in backpacks or pockets.

A sampling of those devices is expected to be shown at CES, including a 7-inch combination DVD player and mobile DTV from LG Electronics.

Another way to access mobile DTV will be through a wireless gadget set to go on sale this year for around $120. Called the Tivit, the hand-held device tunes in to mobile DTV signals and wirelessly forwards them to a cellphone, laptop or anything with a screen and Wi-Fi capability.

The ultimate goal is that most laptops and smart phones will come with the ability to access mobile DTV without an added gizmo to carry around. At CES, for example, Dell Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. and LG will demonstrate new laptops and cellphones with mobile DTV built in.

To show that these devices work, local broadcasters in Las Vegas are scheduled to beam 21 live TV programs during CES.

Viewers won’t be able to pause or pull up shows on demand, however. That won’t come for at least a year or two, according to Anne Schelle, executive director of the Open Mobile Video Coalition, the Washington, D.C., group spearheading the mobile DTV effort on behalf of broadcasters.

The group envisions a paid “premium” service that eventually would allow subscribers to pause and rewind live TV, receive traffic and weather reports, chat or subscribe to specific shows. But for now, the signals will be limited to free, live TV that is ad-supported.

Many efforts to bring TV out of the living room have met with mixed success, said Van Baker, an analyst with Gartner Inc.

“The notion of putting out scheduled TV is just not that palatable to people, especially the early adopters and the affluent consumers who are the most likely targets for mobile DTV,” Baker said.

In a survey commissioned by broadcasters, eight out of 10 people said they would tune in to free live TV on their laptops or cellphones, and half said they would tolerate ads to be able to watch for free. One-third said they would be willing to pay to get certain movies or live sports events.

Millions already do. MobiTV, which is offered as an extra service through cellphone companies, has 9 million paying subscribers, up from 3 million in 2007.

One thing that works in favor of mobile DTV is the price. Said Golvin of Forrester Research: “There are a lot of people who would happily turn on the TV . . . in their phone if it were free.”