As many busy consumers spend more time on the road than in front of their TV sets, it's become more difficult for cable-network programmers to keep their brands top-of-mind.
So forward-looking players are finding ways to deliver content to their target audience wherever they may be.
In recent months, a growing number of networks have signed deals to distribute content tailored specifically to Web-enabled mobile phones and other wireless-handheld devices, such as the popular personal digital assistants from Palm Inc.
Networks that jumped into in the mobile category early didn't do so just to extend their brands. They also wanted in on the ground floor of what is likely to be a growing-and potentially lucrative-consumer category that could someday deliver significant advertising and transactional dollars.
"More than anything else, we see ourselves working for the space," said MSNBC business-development manager Mike Wann of the company's move to deliver news headlines to mobile devices. "It's like a land grab."
Cable News Network delivers wireless content to 87 million subscribers in 20 countries, CNN Interactive president and editor-in-chief Scott Woelfel said recently. Twelve million of those mobile customers are based in the United States.
"We're glad to be out early," Woelfel said.
SportsTicker, a wholly-owned subsidiary of ESPN, has been delivering network-branded content-such as real-time sports scores-to pagers since 1986, ESPN vice president and assistant to the president Rick Alessandri said.
Only recently has there been an explosion of wireless data for PDAs, Alessandri noted. "We're in the bottom of the first [inning] of this game," he said.
ESPN.com earlier this year brought its Web-based "3Play" fantasy game to the wireless platform through a partnership with Nokia Corp. and BellSouth Mobility, as well as other cellular carriers.
C-SPAN OFFERS DATA
Through a deal with Virage Inc., C-SPAN earlier this fall created a special election-coverage database, including texts from the presidential debates and conventions, which was made available to PDAs.
Users could type in keywords such as "Gore" and "gun control" to obtain a list of transcripts that included quotes from the candidates and the context in which they were said.
"Generally, it's not just a soundbite," C-SPAN director of new media Chris Long said. The mobile service was free to users who downloaded the wireless application from the Virage or C-SPAN Web sites.
"We're very interested in exploring the wireless platform as another media distribution for us," Long said. "It's a strategic move for us."
Bloomberg L.P. delivers stock quotes and financial news to a variety of wireless platforms, including mobile phones, pagers and PDAs, as well as through the "AvantGo" service that allows Palm users to download mobile content to their PDAs as they synch up with their PCs.
Mobile users can also register with Bloomberg to create a small portfolio of stocks, so they can access price quotes and corporate news headlines without the need to key in a ticker symbol each time, said Bloomberg director of multimedia David Wachtel.
"We see this as a great branding opportunity to reach target audiences of people who use our other media," Wachtel added.
Weather Channel unit Weather.com launched its first commercial application for Web-browsing mobile phones in July 1999, weather.com director of wireless business development Tom Flournoy said. The company also delivers data to the Palm VII device.
"The difference with Palm is that with a click of a button, we know where you are, so we can tell you the weather where you are right away," Flournoy said. With Web-enabled phones, users key in their ZIP code or city to access weather forecasts.
The Palm platform also attracted Bravo Networks, which earlier this fall launched Independent Film Channel's
for the PDA. Users can check the channel's daily television programming schedule by time zone, see descriptions of the movies set to air and ask to be reminded when their favorite actors appear in other movies on the network.
RANTING ON THE GO
"We're trying to build user-controlled activities," Bravo Networks executive vice president of new media Joe Cantwell said. "You can rant about a film with a quick 'hated it' or 'loved it. 'It's in keeping with the theme of the magazine and channel."
subscribers can also send recommendations about independent films to their friends by electronic mail.
"There's a huge pool of independent film fans," Cantwell said. "They like to make recommendations peer-to-peer."
While television executives may be concerned that mobile content, like other new media, could take viewers' time and attention away from television networks, that's not stopping those interviewed for this story from extending their brands in that space.
For example, Bravo Networks plans to introduce a Bravo-branded mobile service later this year, similar to
Cannibalization of the television audience "is a concern," Cantwell said. However, "It's not motivating any of our activities. In all prior media introductions, the incumbent media didn't die. There is a pretty strong belief that if you serve a loyal audience, then cannibalization is a non-issue."
Some programmers believe a push into new media will help drive viewers back to their television networks.
"The mobile system serves as a great alert system for [CNN] stories viewers want to see," Woelfel said. "It creates a cycle of use" from the television at home to the personal computer at the office and wireless anywhere else, he said.
Alessandri said he doesn't believe mobile applications will ever replace televised sports.
"It supplements our existing networks," he said. "It's a way to reach fans when they don't have access to our other products and services."
While it may seem intuitive that consumers would prefer to watch television or surf the Web if given the choice, some executives said mobile devices provide separate benefits, even to users who are at home and can access their televisions and PCs.
It all comes down to convenience, Flournoy said. Business travelers preparing for a trip may choose to watch the Weather Channel in the kitchen if they're taking the time to make coffee, for example, or call up weather.com on the PC after they check their electronic mail.
"But if you're not turning on the PC for another reason, it's really fast to turn on your phone, type 'yes' for the web browser, type in a ZIP code" and get an instant weather report, Flournoy said.
BRANDS BOOST SALES
Recognized brands will help drive consumers to purchase Web-enabled phones and other handheld devices, and to use content on mobile platforms, programmers said.
"When we replace another, generic weather product on a wireless platform, the traffic to our [mobile telephone carrier] partner's weather site doubles," Flournoy said. "It's not just weather: It's weather from The Weather Channel."
Carriers are often willing to pay for content provided by top brands if such names help drive usage.
"ESPN is the brand consumers want," Alessandri said.
Though it may be easy to move a brand name from one technology platform to another, when it comes to content, one size does not fit all. Ideas that work on a PDA may not be appropriate for the smaller screens found on a wireless phone or pager.
IFC chose to go with Palm devices because of their relatively larger screen size compared to cellular phones, Cantwell said. "We're not stock quotes or sports scores."
MSNBC's Wann said the networks take the small platforms into consideration when crafting content for mobile devices.
"We start with headlines," he said. "We don't just push stories." For example, mobile users can access headlines and abstracts of the top news, then click another button to download the full story.
"With any sort of handheld devices, you're looking for instant gratification," Wann said. The more personalized the content is, the better, he added.
It's not just small screen sizes that make short-form content appropriate for mobile applications. The likely user is a time-constrained business traveler unwilling to wait for large files to download to today's wireless platforms.
Download time is of special concern to owners of mobile devices who pay for wireless air time on a per-minute basis, although many wireless carriers offer bulk air-time or web packages.
All these factors-the cost of airtime, the relatively small screen size and the lack of patience among many handheld device users-conspire to make finding an advertising model for the new mobile platform somewhat of a challenge.
"It is a pain to wait for an ad to download, especially if you're paying for airtime," Cantwell said. He believes that customers will make tradeoffs, putting up with advertising to get mobile content for free or paying a premium to avoid ads.
"It's going to have to be a different kind of advertising because of the screen size," Alessandri suggested. And although the advertising model for mobile devices has not been developed, "we're driving some incredible traffic" that should have future appeal, he added.
ADS MUST APPEAL
MSNBC does not sell advertising along with its mobile content, although the company is looking at that possibility in the future.
"We want to make sure users get a satisfactory experience with us before we move to advertising," Wann said.
If the ads are produced properly, they could even appeal to consumers, Flournoy contended.
"People don't hear that and immediately agree with it," Flournoy admitted. But if advertisers can deliver coupons for products tailored to mobile customers' needs, users may put up with them, he said.
Down the road, weather.com may be able to send coupons for umbrellas to business travelers who arrive in towns where it's raining, for instance.
As with any freshly launched new-media platform, programmers are still working through the business model that supports content delivery. Some are using their platforms to extend the brand, rather than generate revenue. Most hope to explore some combination of advertising, electronic commerce and content-on- demand in the future.
In Japan, some programmers have successfully charged subscription fees for mobile content.
"I don't think subscriptions will work in the U.S.," Wachtel said, noting that Americans have not been willing to pay for Web content here.
On the e-commerce side, mobile programmers such as Bloomberg could easily attract brokerage houses that like the idea of using wireless phones as trading devices, Wachtel added.
IFC and Bravo hope to convince their mobile customers to order videos over their PDAs, and even plan to sell movie passes to local indie theaters, Cantwell said.
With certain mobile devices, he added, the networks could also give users block-by-block directions on how to get to the nearest theater showing IFC-produced
Girl Fight, for example.
"Some limited forms of e-commerce work well on mobile, things with low price points and extremely brief consumer decision making," Cantwell said.
Transactions that require browsing or considering different types of products before making a decision might be better left to other forms of retail, however.
"I wouldn't personally buy pants from Lands' End on a wireless device," Cantwell quipped.
SUITS THE AUDIENCE
Programmers that are creating content for the mobile platform today see a good fit between their target audiences and users of Web-enabled mobile devices.
"It tends to be more of a professional user than the average [wireless-phone] user," Woelfel said.
And that upscale professional business traveler is a good match for the news-and-information audience, Wachtel said.
Those business travelers also tend to access weather reports more readily than the typical consumer.
"The demographics for our content typically align with cellular phone users: higher income, professional and mobile," Flournoy said.
ESPN is hoping to reach the same upscale male audiences that new technology products attract.
"Our fans are traditionally early adopters of technology," Alessandri said. "They're likely to have wireless devices available to them."
Over the next few years, content delivered to mobile phones and PDAs will move well beyond the early-adopter phase, Wann predicted- particularly as Web-enabled phone deployments increase.
Some executives cited research that projects that by 2003, more consumers will access the Internet over handheld devices than over PCs.
There's already a phenomenal demand for mobile content overseas, which overshadows the present U.S. market, programmers said.
"The whole impetus for us in the U.S. came from our offices outside the country," Wachtel said. "From London and Tokyo, the cries came in."
Mobile technology is also more advanced overseas than it is in the United States. Tests are already underway in Europe to deliver video to mobile devices, Wann said. An overseas consumer launch is possible within the next two years.
In the U.S., video delivery is likely to come later, Wann predicted. Because Bloomberg already develops short-form video updates for television, the company may also choose to make such content available for mobile applications in the future, Wann suggested.
ESPN also hopes to be able to deliver voice and video applications to mobile devices as the bandwidth becomes available, probably within the next five years, Alessandri said.
Cantwell doesn't see a market for delivering movies to mobile wireless devices, at least not in the short-term.
TEXTUAL, FOR NOW
"It would cost a great deal," Cantwell said. "Consumers haven't shown any willingness to pay to see long-form on handheld devices."
IFC and Bravo, said they would continue to focus their mobile content on text-based services.
"It's more about the independent film," Cantwell said. "It's not the film itself."
Cantwell suggested that aggressive cable operators would do well to investigate the new medium themselves and deliver local, text-based content to their customers.
"Providers have a great opportunity for new services based on utility and function, rather than just entertainment," Cantwell said.