Mobile DTV? You have got to be effing kidding me

PBS, NETA, APTS and CPB leaders are out of their freaking minds if they think Mobile DTV will take off. All momentum is in the opposite direction. All of it. But go ahead — read the giddy predictions:

Public TV leaders at NETA predicted Mobile DTV will be used for simulcasts of live TV as well as weather alerts, datacasts of traffic maps and sports scores, radio with pictures and interactive brainstorms yet to come, CPB is backing a PBS experiment with a 24-hour children’s TV service.

Though commercial broadcasters are mum about their business plans, said CPB Senior Vice President Mark Erstling,  they agree that kidvid is Mobile DTV’s “killer app.”

There’s even hope that Mobile DTV will seduce 18-to-24-year-old “millenials” to watch news and public affairs TV, said Lonna Thompson, general counsel of the Association of Public Television Stations, speaking at the NETA Conference. A survey indicated their level of interest would double, she said, because they’d no longer be “tethered” to a set in the living room.

Mobile DTV may be able to do a tolerable imitation of cable: Planners say broadcasters in D.C. will air at least 20 different Mobile channels during the tryout this spring.

It can also do a limited imitation of video-on-demand by “clipcasting”—constantly downloading, in advance, an array of popular videos to be stored in users’ receivers—though it won’t let users choose among every video on the Web.

Where it may shine is fulfilling past visions of interactive TV that cable has failed to realize. If the mobile receiver is a cell phone, it can provide a return path for ordering pizzas, voting on American Idol or whatever users want to click

“There will be great businesses built in Mobile DTV,” predicted Andy Russell, senior v.p, PBS Ventures, at the NETA Conference. “We think the possibilities are enormous with this new platform.”



  1. So the whole “alternative uses” angle on DTV never came true. What makes it likely to happen with Mobile DTV? And who’s going to pay for all that software development? TV stations can’t even make regular content in most markets now, but we’re going to hire traffic and weather and sports programmers for our little Mobile DTV channels?
  2. You seriously think that just by creating yet another distribution channel — one that competes with existing popular channels — millenials will suddenly get interested in news and public affairs programs? You’ve got to be f***ing kidding. “Oooh! ‘Washington Week’ on my mobile phone? Check it out Kayleigh!”
  3. So Mobile DTV’s big idea is to copy cable? Excellent business plan. You do realize most of the cable companies are monopolies with extensive infrastructure, right? They don’t make money by lining up channels alone.
  4. “Clipcasting?” It’s called YouTube! Perhaps you’ve heard of it? I have it on my phone right now! Besides — who’s going to curate that? More people we can’t afford to hire?
  5. Dear God you’re going to the “interactive TV” angle again? Jesus, that died 20 years ago and rightly so. TV is a largely passive medium. Interactivity is a web practice. Have you all learned nothing since the advent of the Internet? Ordering pizzas? Voting for “American Idol?” Really? This is the glorious future ahead if only we develop Mobile DTV?
  6. Great businesses will be built with Mobile DTV, huh? You mean like HD Radio has burned up the dials and made Clear Channel billions? Oh, right — they’re in the toilet along with the rest of the commercial radio world. But TV will kick ass with a new platform that requires new hardware, barely duplicates existing and growing functionality on other platforms, and has little to no value proposition for users, right? Sure. Sign me up.

There was a time, many years ago, when a kid — like myself — enjoyed smuggling a little 2.5 inch Casio TV into my high school study hall and getting fuzzy TV images of “The Price is Right” or daytime soaps or whatever was on. But aside from that experience I’ve never wanted mobile TV. Mobile video, yes (and I have that), but not TV.

Keep in mind that TV, including some of public TV, has turned into a broadcast wasteland, especially during the day when people are mobile. I’m going to tune in for “Judge Judy” for 1.5 minutes while I’m on line at the bank? Not likely.

The only shot Mobile DTV has is kids programming, and only from PBS. But is it a “killer app?” Well… if you define “killer” as the only remotely viable app for Mobile TV, done at cost in a noncommercial model, then sure. And Lord help us all pay for all the infrastructure this year and forevermore.

To understand why Mobile DTV won’t make it, just look at what kids are already doing today: they’re texting and using social networks and calling one another. They’re doing social things, not kicking back and watching TV. At most, they might refer friends to see a web video clip, but that will be something forbidden, not a great vocabulary lesson from “Word Girl.”

As 3G and 4G wireless networks (and WiFi) become truly ubiquitous, and our devices are always on the ‘net, TV will become increasingly quaint. The only likely users for Mobile DTV will be the very Boomers that won’t buy the Mobile DTV devices anyway.

And let’s not forget all the bold promises of DTV that remain unfulfilled, which we’re hearing yet again from our august leaders: datacasting, weather, sports scores, news, ad nauseum. The fact that “radio with pictures” was noted in the article tells you how desperate these folks are to get attention. And hey — where’s my MP4-encoded DTV broadcasts? When’s that gonna be done?

Finally, don’t get me started on the low technical quality of the proposed Mobile DTV channels. I have a 2-year-old Flip cam that shoots better video than could be displayed on Mobile DTV. How does this make sense? Disruptive technologies can indeed come along with a lower technical quality, but who intentionally builds a Ferrari and then dents it up, puts a speed governor on it and smashes the windshield to get different customers interested?

Today — the “day of the Tablet” — I encourage all the public broadcasters out there with an eye toward Mobile DTV to look at the real future: mobile apps, mobile web, mobile multifunction devices field-upgraded on demand with new software from the cloud. The web absorbs and carries all media, synchronously and asynchronously. Reverting to broadcast just doesn’t make sense in most cases, and where it does make sense, we already have technologies and deployed assets that work fine; they even work better than fine if you consider HDTV.

Mobile data is much more valuable to our society and economy than propping up a shrinking business model. Let’s stop fighting the losing DTV battle and start fighting for a public service media future that meets the needs of our community and meets people where they are and where they’re going, not where they’ve been.

2 thoughts on “Mobile DTV? You have got to be effing kidding me

  1. John,

    I suspect the reason PTV groups are making grandiose plans here is that it’s a LOCAL digital channel which in theory does not disrupt the broken structure of public television. Unfortunately PBS, CPB, NETA and APTS are not able to view the complete marketplace because the vast majority of viable distribution paths to the consumer disinter-mediate the local station. As a result, they invest heavily and narrowly in channels that are politically safe but economically unstable and technologically immature. It is really unfortunate.

    I was at PBS from 1999-2006 and left as VP of Digital Ventures. My undoing was the joint venture I spearheaded between Comcast, Sesame Workshop, HIT Entertainment and PBS that resulted in the launch of Sprout on cable. Today Sprout is one of the most successful digital preschool services in the market and I suspect will secure a home for educational children’s programming for decades to come (with or without PBS), thereby preserving the goal of public television but perhaps eliminating the inefficiencies.

    I can tell you first hand that putting that deal together in public television’s antiquated system and political environment took every ounce of energy that we could muster to “save” PBS Kids from the downward slide.

    I truly wish PBS the best because I passionately believe in the mission and the quality of programming; however, when I read an article like this I am so grateful to be removed from that environment. There are other amazing independent media brands (several of whom I represent through my digital consulting practice) who understand the market deeply and can act quickly. To that end, new distribution models will at least ensure that Americans can continue to receive the best in educational, cultural and independent media, irrespective of whether PBS is able to be a part of the landscape.

    Thanks for article. It (painfully) took me back a few years and reinforced why I felt the need to do execute Sprout with the extraordinary support of a smart, market-savvy team… many of whom also left in 2006 to pursue their careers in more progressive, in-touch media companies.

    Deron Triff
    (Former Vice President of Digital Ventures for PBS)

    1. Deron – I remember when Sprout came about and the wailing and gnashing of teeth that greeted its arrival. I thought it was one of the smartest moves made within the PBS system in perhaps 10 or 20 years. So much of what PBS does as a network is nationalized anyway (stations basically all follow the national programming in near-lock-step fashion) that it makes no sense to me to have this local tier of players UNLESS they are actually serving local needs (which, by number, almost none of them do). Why not just operate like Sprout or C-SPAN? What’s local about “Masterpiece Theatre or “Sesame Street” (unless you live on Sesame Street, of course. 😉

      I’m hoping this Mobile DTV business is all an engineering geek thing that dies before it reaches the executive offices, but that may not be the case. In public TV in particular (more than in radio) I get the sense that the engineers run the show much of the time. If PBS leaders are smart, they’ll kill anything beyond small R&D investments (<$100,000 annually) in Mobile DTV immediately.

      Sadly, both NPR and PBS are controlled by member stations, which completely stunts their evolutionary growth as networks (it also stunts station evolution). NPR has, thankfully, broken free of much of the political drag when it comes to developing online/mobile services for national consumers. There may be a backlash coming to NPR soon, but so far most stations have thrown their hands up and said, explicitly or implicitly, "Go ahead — we don't have the resources to do online stuff anyway." And really, PBS has done more online than most stations, too.

      But the long-term viability of the system is definitely in doubt if there isn't a major shake-up in the financial and political structures governing this 40-year-old beast.

      Thanks for the comment. I only wish you'd had a better experience inside the system. And thanks for your work on Sprout!

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