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A band performing on KCRW appears on an iPod screen and is projected on a screen behind the webmaster

Look sharp! It's a video podcast from KCRW, shown by webmaster Jason Georges at the Integrated Media Association conference in February. (Photo: Current.)

Mobile: Producers prep for tiny-screen viewing boom

Originally published in Current, March 6, 2006
By Jeremy Egner

Sure, the pocket gadgets carried around by 21st-century Americans are great for chatting with friends and listening to hip-hop hits, but wouldn’t you rather be watching music videos, touring San Francisco’s art galleries or letting Elmo entertain your young’un in the supermarket produce section?
Or maybe you’d rather let your iPod show you how to debone a chicken in less than three minutes.

These are some of the sights public broadcasters are offering for the really small screen as mobile video offerings explode across iTunes and increasingly TV-friendly cell phone networks.

Though skeptics expect that 2.5-inch displays will disqualify mobile video as a viable alternative to a full-size TV screen, others point to the more than 15 million video downloads sold by Apple’s iTunes online store since it began offering video in October. (Apple says there isn’t a way to tally how many of those were viewed via mobile devices).

Pubcasters dabbling in handheld video say they have no choice but to reach any screens viewers choose to use, regardless of size, as television caters to convenience, shifting from scheduled to on-demand viewing.

Mobile video is simply another platform pubcasters have to provide if they want to remain relevant, says Laurie Donnelly, executive producer of lifestyle productions for WGBH in Boston. Last week the station launched the first of what will be at least 25 video podcasts, two to three minutes each, featuring cooking tips from chef Ming Tsai, star of Simply Ming, with offerings from other how-to programs to follow.

"If we’re going to stay ahead of the curve, we have to be out there making shows as accessible as possible,” she says.
Moreover, the smaller formats give pubcasters a relatively inexpensive way to innovate and extend the value of arts, educational, how-to and public affairs programs, says Tim Olson, director of the interactive department at San Francisco’s KQED.

"There’s the potential to do more low-cost production this way,” he says. KQED’s “Gallery Crawl” podcasts, launched in July, are shot by a two-person crew using a high-end consumer digicam. “You can afford to experiment and take some creative risks.”

Santa Monica’s KCRW-FM, which routinely offers audio podcasts of studio performances, has now done 24 video podcasts, webmaster Jason Georges said at last month’s Public Broadcasting New Media Conference in Seattle. One hassle for producers: When video is added, bands get nervous about having to keep up their image.

In addition to KQED, WGBH and KCRW, pubcasters such as Twin Cities Public Television and Kentucky Educational Television offer video podcasts adapted from or inspired by popular programs. But that isn’t enough, according to a January PBS podcasting survey: The respondents crave video of Frontline, Now and other PBS standbys.

"That’s a service I’d be willing to pay for or at least would cause me to become a PBS subscriber/supporter,” said one respondent [PBS podcasting survey results].

PBS is “beginning the process of video podcast experimentation with key properties” such as the NewsHour, says Cindy Johanson, PBS senior v.p., interactive and education. “It is absolutely a priority for PBS to continue its evolution to be content-centric, distribution-neutral.”
Meanwhile, broadcast and cable networks — which have flooded iTunes with downloadable programs since Apple’s video iPod debuted in October—are scrambling to make more video clips and other content available to wireless phones.

CBS and ABC last week announced initiatives to beam news and entertainment briefs to phones. ABC News video, along with that of NBC and Fox, had already been available via MobiTV, a standalone service that also provides video—live, in most cases—for Sprint, Cingular and Alltel, among other wireless companies.

Verizon’s V Cast features content from NBC, ESPN and CNN, among others, downloadable music and videos, and two- to three-minute clips from Sesame Street, currently public TV’s lone “mobilecasting” venture. An original offering of the V Cast service in February 2005, Sesame Street began offering mobile ringtones and wallpapers in November.

Cell phones are “devices that everyone always has handy; they may not always carry an iPod,” says Jeffrey Fleischman, of Sesame Workshop’s interactive media department. “We think there’s a real opportunity there to have content available when parents need or want it.”
Portability trumps squinting?

Despite the hoopla surrounding downloadable Lost episodes and live Olympic updates via cell phones, which MobiTV offered last month, some observers balk at the notion that handheld video will somehow revolutionize TV viewing.

"Every so often in the tech world there’s an effort to take a device that works extremely well and make it into something it isn’t,” says Phillip Swann, president of TVPredictions.com, a website that tracks the TV tech industry. “There have been little TVs around for years and I don’t see a huge industry for them.”

An October survey by business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan found that nearly 82 percent of U.S. respondents believe cell phones don’t have screens large enough for video, though networks that will emerge beginning later this year will offer a much better user experience, says Frost & Sullivan analyst Vikrat Gandhi.

And it’s the users, not pundits or programmers, who will ultimately decide the value of handheld video, Olson says.
Small screens are expected to get larger, but KQED has found that the MPEG4, H.264 format provides a sufficiently compelling and convenient way to put art from San Francisco’s numerous galleries into viewers’ pockets.

KET, which in January began offering downloadable Windows Media, MPEG4 and Apple’s AAC versions of its Friday night regional public affairs shows, did so in direct response to viewer requests, says Paul Stackhouse, the network’s director of web and multimedia services.

"Friday evening is an inconvenient time to watch TV for many people,” he says, but video podcast viewers no longer have to tune in then to catch Comment on Kentucky.
Requests for another pubTV property came in the form of an iTunes review of a Nova video podcast. The writer, a math teacher, pleaded for more of the same so she could use them in her classroom.

The value of portability trumps concerns about screen size, says Stephen Usery, Twin Cities PTV’s v.p. for marketing and communications. TPT podcasts docs and specials from its Minnesota Channel as well as its kids show Dragonfly TV. Last month the station demonstrated to staffers what happens when an HD projector throws an episode of Dragonfly TV playing on an iPod onto a 9-by-12-foot screen.

"The quality of the video left their jaws on the floor,” Usery recalls.

Sesame Street doesn’t currently offer downloadable video. But its involvement with Verizon’s V Cast gives it a place in wireless music and TV, a sector that analysts expect to explode in the next year.

Early incarnations of mobile TV looked more like slide shows than video, but ser-vices like V Cast, which transmits at 15 frames per second, is quite watchable.

Frost analyst Gandhi says 30 frames per second will become more common as designated data networks such as Qualcomm’s MediaFLO become available in late 2006. (Verizon is partnering with Qualcomm, which purchased its own spectrum in 2004, on MediaFLO).

Such networks will allow more efficient use of spectrum because they won’t share bandwidth with voice traffic like current mobilecasting technologies do. And unlike familiar cell phone networks, in which multiple users downloading the same video would each use a slice of spectrum, the new networks will allow providers to offer true broadcasts that “an infinite number of users can access without taking additional spectrum,” says Madelyn Smith, communications director for IP Wireless.

Next year IP Wireless hopes to offer TDtv, mobile multimedia technology designed to let cellular carriers use their own bandwidth for multicast video rather than sign on with a new network such as MediaFLO.

"What will drive the [wireless] industry is mobile TV and mobile music,” Ken Leon, a wireless industry analyst for Standard & Poor’s Equity Research told BusinessWeek.
PBS is “waiting for the market to mature a bit more” before jumping into wireless video projects, Johanson says.

Web page posted March 14, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Current Publishing Committee

EARLIER ARTICLES

Podcasts: for free or not for free? — a commentary by Paul Marszalek.

Listeners eat up podcasts, so pubradio adds more, February 2006.

On-demand advocates point to Mike Homer's nonprofit Open Media Network as a model, February 2006.

LINKS

COMSCoRE ONLINE VIDEO USAGE

San Francisco's KQED offers a monthly arts report Gallery Crawl via streaming video, podcast subscription or an easy Quicktime download.

Boston's WGBH offers short video podcasts from American Experience, Simply Ming and other national programs via the video section of Apple's iTunes site.

Kentucky Educational Television offers video and audio podcasts, mostly 26:30 minutes long from several regular broadcast series.

In the Los Angeles area, KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic puts out video podcasts of some of its live performances.

Two-thirds of users of audio podcasts from PBS programs were younger than 46, a PBS survey found.

Cell phone carriers promote a stable of short broadcasts, such as Verizon V Casts of Green Day or Shakira music videos, a Sesame Street segment, network newsblurbs and sports reports.

Besides selling music and videos, Apple's iTunes Music Store also serves without charge as the biggest directory of podcasts, where users hook up with radio when they want it.

Producers for NBC Universal will be expected to provide content for mobile media, TVWeek.com reports (free registration required).

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