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Telephone companies are becoming TV providers to maintain their businesses in the face of landline loss to cell phone use. But the migration never ends. Cell phone providers are intent on transmitting video to handheld devices, as evidenced by the number of mobile content sessions coming up at CTIA's Wireless I.T. & Entertainment Summit in San Francisco Oct 23-25.

The mobile content movement doesn't necessarily portend a massive audience shift to 2-inch screens, however. Most television executives consider it additive, but the jury is still out.

There's nothing particularly new about mobile video. MobiTV announced its initiative years ago. ESPN jumped into mobile content provision early on with mixed results, and came back for a second round. Verizon launched mobile video in the form of VCast Video over its regular data network, then as VCast TV over the much more efficient and effective network offered by Qualcomm's MediaFLO.

For content providers of all flavors--broadcast or cable networks, IP video purveyors, even syndicators--mobile devices represent merely another platform. So it is that broadcast networks, which still have the highest ratings and therefore the most to lose from platform migration, nonetheless have plunged head-long into mobile content deals. Some of the deals involve shows specifically produced for the small screen, while others offer repurposed regular telecasts. It should be noted, however, that only one repurposed telecast--"60 Minutes"--is among the 20 highest rated shows, a list populated mostly by dramas and NFL games.

The networks have their collective toes in the mobile content market because they see, like everyone else, the potential to either gain eyeballs or herd them somehow back to the TV set. What has yet to be demonstrated is the demand for mobile video content. VCast Video initially launched as a $10 add-on. People shrugged, or took it for a month or two, and then shrugged. MediaFLO-enabled VCast TV is $13 to $25 a month, and it's not the only game in town.

iPhone users have YouTube content, which may lend itself more favorably to a small screen if one is inclined to pony up $400 for a cell phone. If so, it would make just as much sense to get a WiFi-enabled handset and watch YouTube videos the wireless broadband way.

Then again, wireless broadband could have further implications for telcos just now launching IPTV offerings, but substantial erosion is unlikely. As nascent as the mobile TV market remains, one thing holds true--people like to watch TV on a TV set. Just as YouTube video is painful to watch on a 52-inch HD plasma, so too is minimally converted, high-motion landscape footage wastefully watched on a cell phone. Cell phone TV is unlikely to take a huge chunk out of the traditional TV business, but telcos just getting into the space might want to consider an MVNO, just to be on the safe side. --Deborah

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