Bright Lights For Mobile Video
By Justin Pearse, Tue Dec 21 08:00:00 GMT 2004

Media owners in the UK foresee a bright year ahead for the nascent mobile video market.

The annual handset regeneration event otherwise known as Christmas is almost upon us. The hopes of kids across the land are pinned on finding a shiny new videophone in their Christmas stocking -- sentiments echoed by the UK’s media industry, which is pinning its own hopes on 2005 being the year mobile video really kicks off.

It’s not just the recent flurry of 3G launches that are behind this expectation, as video over GPRS looks equally attractive. The past year saw MMS appear to emerge as the mobile medium holding the most potential for content providers, however, it’s starting to seem like mobile video could steal a march in grabbing their attention.

Two of the UK’s most forward-thinking media industry executives, Endemol director of interactive media Peter Cowley and Fremantle Media senior VP of interactive Claire Tavernier, both believe mobile video will be more important than MMS as a content medium in the year ahead. In addition to the obvious fit of the video medium for broadcasters, Cowley also cites the failure of operators to deliver MMS in a consumer-friendly way. “It’s just too complicated, whereas they’re making video so much easier on 3G phones,” he says.

One of the most exciting capabilities mobile has opened up for media companies, beyond the obvious revenue opportunities, has been the ability to create true, instant interactivity with its audiences. Endemol sees mobile video as the ultimate expression of this, letting viewers “video conference with the presenters”, as Cowley puts it, and is hoping to launch the capability as early as January for the newest installation of Celebrity Big Brother.

Of course, the other side to the coin is the supply of mobile video content, at a premium, to consumers. One of the most interesting developments here recently has been the launch of video short codes. Credit has to go to MX Telecom for convincing the operators of the concept, which could open up some very exciting opportunities. A number of major content providers have signed up go live with the service, which enables consumers to dial a 5-digit number as a video call to have video content streamed to their phone. The actual experience makes for superb viewing and the discovery mechanic is attractively simple for content owners to market to consumers.

The service has launched with 3, with the majority of other operators on the verge of joining it. “Realistically, with video we’re still at the pilot stage,” says BBC executive producer for mobile Matthew Postgate. “But we’re definitely at the point where it’s moving to the mainstream.”

Some of the most innovative uses of this technology should come in the New Year, as it moves on to phase two. “This will move to live feeds, with true interactivity,” says MX Telecom MD Mark Fitzgerald. This will obviously be huge for adult services, along with more mainstream uses. “For reality TV shows, for instance, you’ll be able to pick which camera you want to view from,” says Fitzgerald.

It’s not just this type of newly generated content that’s exciting broadcasters. Their considerable back catalogue assets can also now be reinvigorated as a new source of revenue by developing them into mobile video content. However, this isn’t going to be as easy as it appears.

Fremantle Media, which has already seen success with mobile video based around the recent X Factor show, has some juicy formats to plunder for mobile video, such as Baywatch and Benny Hill. But Claire Tavernier says the process is actually very complex. “The issue is that we have to clear this content for use on mobile, as obviously this wasn’t in the original contract,” she says. “We have to go back to the original talent for the rights, clear the music, plus the editing costs. So it’s quite expensive, especially when mobile video is not generating a huge amount of money so far. Though we are still committed to it.”

This commitment by the media giants is going to be key in driving the development of mobile video in the year ahead. Despite the unavoidable current spotlight on 3G, mobile video should also play an equally important role in the GPRS world, which, it can’t be forgotten, remains the most common method of access. Indeed, at Turner Broadcasting, VP of wireless and emerging technologies Mitch Lazar points out that its video services “look very good on 2.5G. The danger is in over-promising in new technologies. In general human expectations always outpace technological capability anyway.”

Operators are going to have to be very careful how they manage the delivery of two tiers of video content, GPRS and 3G, warns O2 head of entertainment products James Parton. “The challenge is to deliver the right quality to match the customer’s speed of connection,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of work on auto detection for our 3G launch. Some of our competitors merely warn customers ‘don’t try and do this on GPRS.”

If both operators and media owners can get their propositions right, 2005 could well be a happy new year for mobile video.