Why Mobile DTV is DOA

This week I’ve been enjoying a private e-mail exchange with someone working in the Mobile DTV technology space. And since I’ve invested some time into shaping my thoughts, I wanted to include everyone in the conversation.

Of course, this is only my side of the discussion, as I don’t have permission to post the full thread.

In short, I was pitched on some points of why I’ve been wrong about Mobile DTV so far. Needless to say, I haven’t changed my opinions. But I have fleshed them out a bit…

On Spectrum Efficiency

Mobile DTV is often touted as being highly spectrum-efficient when compared to delivering video via the web and 3G/4G wireless networks, and technically I agree it is. But consumers don’t care. And carriers don’t care. Indeed, carriers would rather consumers “waste” their spectrum than allow usage to shift to broadcast spectrum — which is beyond their balance sheets.  Better to build out spectrum capacity and charge for it than allow free over-the-air broadcasts if you’re AT&T or Verizon or Sprint and so forth. The spectrum argument is attractive to engineers and engineering-minded bureaucrats. But it’s a non-starter in the broader market.

On Consumer Usage Patterns

Consumers use video in a fairly limited way when mobile — they consume it in little bites here and there, they don’t generally watch whole shows. You won’t watch a full episode of Judge Judy standing in line at the bank (hopefully!). To effectively serve that narrow niche, broadcasters would have to engineer new niche program streams separate from their core broadcast services. But local broadcasters don’t know how to do that efficiently and I would argue the business models of niche markets are so different they can’t do it. National third parties could do programming and distribute it, but they can do that via the Internet already, so why negotiate with hundreds of cranky terrestrial broadcast corporations already losing money? Bite-sized program streams and content snippets are tailor-made for web economics and direct distribution.

On Technology Changes

Broadcast companies are setup around long-term business models — buy your transmitter and run it for 20 or 30 years.  When I worked in public TV in Alaska I discovered this problem: the business leaders and engineers were repeatedly upset by the fact that they had to buy and re-buy equipment, software and services endlessly as the DTV and HD systems came in the door and were upgraded / replaced as fast as every 2-3 years (because those systems were built on rapidly-changing IT gear). Sure, those engineers are learning to cycle faster, but the balance sheets of these corporations likely aren’t keeping pace. Mobile DTV would be yet another rapidly-cycling technology cost depressing profits.

Furthermore, mobile devices are undergoing incredibly rapid development. The arrival of the iPad, the new iPhone (presumably in June), constantly-improving Android devices and so forth are changing the game far too rapidly for Mobile DTV — a niche technology — to keep up. Chipsets would have to change too fast, software would have to change too fast and that would affect both users and broadcasters. Consider the problem of adding H.264 to the ATSC standard — when will that reach consumers?

When there are already perfectly good ways to deliver video online to millions of users, making the argument for yet another layer of complexity and cost for manufacturers, carriers, software developers, broadcasters and users just doesn’t make sense. Mobile DTV is an awesome buggy whip for an age when cars are rapidly taking hold.

On Interactivity

My correspondent suggested Mobile DTV 2.0 (the next revision, not the current one) could bring interactivity to the mix. Stop right there — I’ve heard this before! It was one of many hyped ideas in standard DTV and it has never come true.  In an age of the web — the ultimate interactive platformthe notion that Mobile DTV can out-web the web is delusional. That’s what a salesman from a Mobile DTV vendor will tell you: “Wait until version 2!”  I’d give up on the interactivity notion right away because that platform is already built. It’s called the Internet (and you’re soaking in it!).

On Killer Devices and Use Cases

If Mobile DTV is to be useful to a mass audience, it’s likely to be as a supplement to the in-car DVD player we see today, assuming the chipset is cheap enough to add to these devices.  (HD Radio / iBiquity made a huge mistake by charging upwards of $50 per device for licensing, thus stunting adoption to this day.)  But if you can get “TV” on your in-car DVD player, that would make sense to me.  A combined DTV / Mobile DTV chipset would be ideal, to allow for stationary and mobile viewing. For an RV user, that would be great.

As for uses, anything real-time is ideal. Traffic, weather, news alerts, sports, etc.  Sadly, traffic updates are already available on GPS devices, which is where they’re more useful anyway (though some have suggested GPS and Mobile DTV functions could be merged in one device).  And weather would be nice, but it’s not critical because it’s rare that real-time weather alerts are all that important.  News alerts would be good, but that’s available via news radio programming, so you have built-in competition there.  Sports is okay, but again, there’s radio. Finally, at some point you’ll have a computer in the car hooked to the Internet that will gather and share ALL that information and more via voice command and display.

So while we can imagine some applications for Mobile DTV, the use-cases proposed are either too narrowly-defined to be market-relevant or are duplicated via web-based functionality.

On Smartphones

Mobile DTV has been heavily promoted as an add-on chipset and feature for smartphones. The resolution of Mobile DTV is so low (less than 480p currently) that’s not an issue. Indeed, the latest Android devices and the next iPhone have very high resolution screens, making native Mobile DTV images small enough to fit in a “window” on these devices! Indeed, on the next (rumored) iPhone you’ll be able to both shoot and watch HD video (720p) on an HD-capable screen (960×640).

For Mobile DTV to even approach viability for broadcasters and users, it will have to be ubiquitous in smartphones — the soon-to-be-dominant interactive platform for the next 10 years. But to really catch on, Mobile DTV broadcasters and programming would have to be ready on Day 1 across most of the U.S. (highly unlikely). Even assuming that feat were accomplished, just compare the coverage patterns of terrestrial TV and 4G/3G/2G wireless. I think we can already see the Internet will beat local terrestrial broadcast for smartphones.


My own predictions in the mobile space related to Mobile DTV:

  • Smartphone devices (from iPhone-size to iPad-size) will be the central interactive communications platforms for a majority of the U.S. as laptop and desktop PCs begin to decline (Apple already knows this, HP just recently figured this out). Mobile media creation and consumption will be centered on these highly mobile devices. They will trend toward being smart devices hooked to data pipes with increasingly smart traffic management, prioritization and multicasting to profitably manage traffic growth.
  • In-car entertainment will remain dominated by radio (not HD Radio) for 10-15 years, but will have strong growth in 3G/4G-based Internet application platforms (Pandora, etc.) as car manufacturers spread those devices and subsidized connections (a la OnStar) to more car models. Entertaining kids in the car will be done via DVD and/or stored video on smartphone-lite devices (iPod Touch, iPad) because parents want control over what the kids watch and broadcast doesn’t offer that control.
  • Any other devices that gain wide adoption will be single-purpose simple devices that prove their value on their own, not in combination with other devices. Smartphones will be the primary multi-function devices (convergence devices). Everything else has to stand alone (divergence devices).
  • Satellite radio will survive, but will never be as dominant as terrestrial radio.
  • Internet radio — via mobile devices — will grow, but will not surpass terrestrial radio for 10-15 years and may never surpass terrestrial radio if programming evolves appropriately.
  • Mobile DTV will not gain significant traction with broadcasters (engineers love it, business people don’t) or users (the use-cases are too weak). At best it can hope for penetration rates similar to HD Radio.
  • Mobile interactivity (or interactivity in general) will be more important than mobile passive media consumption. That is, people would rather interact with social networks than passively consume media while mobile.


I have nothing technically against Mobile DTV. It’s a significant achievement in that sense. But I can’t see how it makes it big in this mediasphere. The stars are aligned against it. It’s Dead On Arrival.

Our TV engineering friends shouldn’t feel bad, though. Even the brilliant engineering minds working at Google make amazing technologies that just don’t catch on (Knol, Buzz, Wave, Profiles, Voice, Chat, etc.).

Sadly, this is getting to be a pattern in the TV world… DTV was a great idea 15 years before it was finally implemented. Now it’s mostly irrelevant because the vast majority of mainstream America is already on cable/satellite and has been for years. Mobile DTV is just a weaker echo of DTV: too little, too late.

Given this analysis, all I can do is hope public TV people out there avoid spending too much time or money on this distraction.

That said, if lobbyists get to Congress and force-feed you Mobile DTV via “free” CPB appropriations (that won’t cost you later), take the money and run! Hell, HD Radio was similarly “free” to most public radio stations in recent years — no harm done there (but no realization of HD Radio’s promise, either).

Of course, pull out this post and rub my nose in it 5 years from now if I’m wrong. I could easily be wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Channel surfing + web surfing

NewTeeVee has a nice post summarizing some recent Nielsen data on TV viewing + simultaneous Internet usage.

Of course, the data are somewhat anecdotal because Nielsen has direct measurement tools for TV viewing, but noting “Internet time” is diary-style and the diary is likely filled out by older household members less likely to multi-media-task™ with laptop and remote on the couch.

It also ignores the younger set that doesn’t turn on the TV to begin with, but still watches TV content… via the web. I’m working with some new folks in St. Louis, some rather young folks, and they generally don’t watch TV via TV. So that usage pattern isn’t directly recorded, either.

Nevertheless, the dual-surfing approach is definitely on the rise, by Nielsen’s numbers and from my own observations. Shoot — my 70+ year old mother does that with her MacBook Pro and the big screen TV. Soon she’ll do it with her 64GB WiFi iPad (I kid you not).

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.”

via current.org


  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.

Sign me up for a TV hooked to the web

Interesting chart of some numbers published by eMarketer recently, taken from a Deloitte research report:

It’s remarkable to note how fast and consistently “matures” are getting interested in hooking their TVs up to the Internet. But everyone’s desires are rising, in all age ranges.

I’d like to hook up a TV directly, too. Of course, I’ve already got an Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii and Apple TV, and they’re all live on the Internet. But it’s still not quite the experience I’m looking for. I’ve considered setting up a Mac mini, but just don’t want the cost and the hassle.

And what happens when the interactive Internet — complete with social experiences — is on your big screen and “TV” is still a crummy, compressed image from your cable or satellite provider? That’s some tough competition for broadcast.

Rosenblum Resurrected

Back in February 2007 I was blown away by Michael Rosenblum, keynote speaker at the Integrated Media Association conference in Boston. I’ve shared this video on DVD, shown it to colleagues and helped the IMA post it to their web site back then. But it’s buried at the IMA site and it deserves much more play. So I’m resurrecting it here.

I was actually running the cheap camcorder at the event, in a dimly lit hotel ballroom from about 50 feet away off to the side — so the video itself is blah. But the audio is awesome because it was professionally recorded and I was able to merge the blah video with the fantastic audio. Makes all the difference.

Blurry and dim video aside, Rosenblum’s presentation is mesmerizing. His grip on historical stories brings to life the peril that’s present for traditional TV broadcasters and TV producers, including public broadcasting companies. This is must-watch stuff if you’re in any way involved in TV or video.

Length: about 1 hour. Introduction by KQED‘s Tim Olson. Download a QuickTime copy here (113MB).


Rosenblum on Video News

Sing it brother! Rosenblum instinctively understands the next wave in both local video news production and local advertising production. While working at the stations in Anchorage, I proposed that we develop a democratized advertising platform to allow folks to write their own material, submit it online and pay for it instantly. Why aren’t we doing that today?


Brian Lehrer Live Interview from Rosenblum TV on Vimeo.

Rosenblum on TV Economics

Everyone in the PBS community knows that stations and the network screwed up when cable became a major national media distribution force. PBS should have been allowed an encouraged to develop a multi-channel national content distribution system tailored to the cable world. Too bad we missed that boat. And now, with hundreds of cable channels and millions of web outlets, video economics have jumped and it’s time we rethink our work.

On advertising market shifts

Recently, Robert Paterson pointed out a Diane Mermigas piece talking about shifts in the advertising market, especially in relationship to network TV sales. According to the Mermigas analysis, network TV stands to lose up to $1.5 billion during this season of “up fronts” alone. That’s a lot of dough for any industry to lose nearly overnight, even if it is spread across several mega-media corporations.

I commented on Paterson’s site, but realized I liked my response so much I wanted to elevate it to my own blog in the process. Here’s Paterson’s question and my own response:

Is this the problem stated in Money terms?
Here is Diane Mermigas talking about the commercial networks — is this the same for NPR and PBS?

I would say Public Media are not impacted as directly by advertising losses like this, nor do the losses/impacts happen in phase with commercial media.

But the losses are there or soon will be (depending on the size and sophistication of your advertising clients).

But what’s worse — much worse — is that revenue from advertising (sponsorship!) is not managed as professionally in public media as it is in commercial media. This means that trends in ad spending are not understood as well in public media as they are elsewhere. So as changes ripple through the ad space, public media won’t figure it out for several cycles. Blunted reaction times will lead to lost opportunity and lost money.

Commercial outlets have a firm, financial bottom line and they calculate where that line lies every day, every week, every month, every quarter. Public media is not so fastidious. Our bottom line is the soft concept of “public service” (imagined in many different ways) and revenue is only a means to that end. We don’t have hard measures of public service, we don’t analyze so deeply or accurately, as a group (I’m sure there are some exceptions, of course).

Indeed, as nonprofits, we tend to downplay “overhead” costs like sales analysts or “management” functions that could lead us to higher revenues and better customer relationships in the underwriting space. We don’t really operate like a business where it matters most — where money intersects with mission.

On top of all that, then there’s the problem of TV. All TV outlets have fewer and fewer viewers as the mass media model breaks down in a flurry of new outlets and platforms. And then there’s the demographics of PBS generally, which are less-than-desirable for many marketers.

In short, the money is moving where it can get greater impact, and public media outlets are pooly prepared to sense the change or alter course to meet the advertisers at their new destinations.

The solution? Get engaged locally in a way that’s unassailable by national trends. Build deep relationships that, yes, can be “monetized” in both corporate and individual realms. Develop relationships with sponsors that have historically not played in local media. Plus, get your butt online in a real way, not with business card web sites. Oh, and be sure to have some hard-nosed analysts on board that keep the business honest on the numbers — avoid the doe-eyed optimism that sometimes overtakes “soft” nonprofits like ours.

Mundt cuts the cord, lives to tell about it

Bravo to Todd Mundt on both “cutting the cord” from his cable company and writing in-depth about the process and experience of consuming media — up to and including HD video — without cable (or satellite) TV service.

The mix of technologies required today are a bit daunting to anyone that wants just a plain old “boob tube” experience, but for any moderately inclined hobbyist, this is pretty accessible.

Furthermore — and this is the kicker — there’s more content out there on the ‘Net than on PBS, as lots of sources distribute directly and PBS (for various reasons, many of them good) chooses not to carry the stuff.

Read all about it here.

(For the record, Todd reports that he still uses the cable company for Internet access, just not for TV. My own experience is that my local cableco won’t sell me high speed service without a TV bundle, so I can’t fully follow his example. However, I have stopped watching BSG on TV and instead watch exclusively via hulu and DVD).

Oh, and be sure to follow Todd on Twitter, if you aren’t already.

Broadcasting stocks? Sell, Sell, Sell!

Caddyshack, a favorite movie from my teen and college years (oh, who am I kidding — it still cracks me up!) includes a scene with the late Rodney Dangerfield in which he’s on the phone with his stock broker. Dangerfield plays an obnoxious nouveau riche land developer by the name of Al Czervik.

Excitedly Czervik shouts into the phone: “Buy, buy, buy!” and after a pause to listen, “They’re all buying? Then sell, sell, sell!

That last piece of advice now appears to apply to stocks in the broadcasting sector, according to a report in BusinessWeek, which includes this ominous quote:

Meanwhile, traditional broadcasters will probably remain challenged by secular factors such as audience fragmentation, as advertisers shift more spending to the Internet and other new media platforms, Amobi says. A terrestrial radio recovery could be impeded by a continued supply and demand imbalance, while the satellite radio companies have also seen anemic retail sales, even as they await a likely imminent regulatory decision on their pending merger proposal. However, TV advertising offers a bright spot, in our view, with a relatively strong 2007-08 upfront and scatter market for the networks, and a specter of record political dollars for local stations with the upcoming Presidential elections.

To be fair, this isn’t exactly breaking news. Audience fragmentation has been the hallmark of the 21st century as media outlets and platforms proliferate and the old media companies actually accelerate their decline by reflexively going for ratings with sensationalist and over-commercialized programming.

And on the matter of TV advertising, what happens after the 2008 election cycle? That’s not a pretty picture, even if it does come in HD.

TV News: Just die already

I hate TV news and TV “journalists.” Local, national, cable, network — you name it, I hate it and them. CNN, a once-proud innovator in quality news, is now even less than a joke. It’s no longer a laughable service, it’s one that should make every self-respecting democracy-loving American weep. CBS, already a shameful service, now wants to buy news from CNN? Well, sure — what the hell’s the difference at this point, anyway?

(The one exception, of course, is most of the stuff distributed via PBS. The pubcasting news/public affairs shows have their own problems, but integrity or seriousness of intent is not one of them.)

Thank God there are so many smart people in the world that are as outraged by (commercial) TV news as I am. The reaction to Wednesday night’s Clinton/Obama debate in Pennsylvania was instantaneous, nearly universally negative and — bonus — entertaining to boot.

Check out these Twitter posts (tweets) regarding the debate, from a variety of users…

  • 45 minutes into the debate and I’m thinking this is exactly why network TV must die. Not one real issue – just flag pins, Wright, and Bosnia
  • And should a former Clinton campaign manager be one of the two people conducting the debate? Doesn’t ABC have any real journalists?
  • ABC’s debate was a bigger joke than CNN’s compassion forum. it’s good the newseum in dc is now open because real journalism is cold and dead
  • hehe Charles said “fascinating debate”. What debate was he watching?
  • Just wrote a letter to my local affiliate complaining about how bad the Debate was handled. I felt bad for both candidates
  • Reddit-fueled debate backlash nearing 10,000 complaints on ABC website: http://ping.fm/aTKoi (wait til Digg kicks in)
  • 50 minutes into the democratic debate and yet not one question of substance. No policy, all bullshit.
  • terrible debate. ABC News sucks.
  • Almost 10,00 comments on abcnews.com http://is.gd/6KM detesting the debate questions as tabloid and irrelevant. And they were.
  • What the hell is wrong with ABC? Effing flag pins and fake scandals? Well done. You’d have been better off letting The View run the debate.
  • the real question about tonight’s debate…will the press cover how bad abc news handled it???
  • tried giving feedback on the debate on the abc news site but couldn’t register. site is probably overloaded. comment count is now over 9500!
  • just under 4 hours since the debate and the abc news site has received almost 9400 comments, almost all negative!
  • to me, the big news of the debate is how terrible the moderators were. they were trying to create news. they were debating the candidates.
  • Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo says that after tonight, they need to give the debates back to the Women League of Voters?

Let’s set aside the new media topic for a moment and address journalism, ethics and trust. Public media purveyors: Your job is to be everything that ABC, CNN, CBS and others are not. Do that, on any platform, and the support will follow.

Near-future of TV, via Mossberg

Great little summary of the present and near-term tech developments related to TV and video distribution technologies by Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt Mossberg.

Found via Gerd Leonhard