by Debra Kaufman
Is your phone ringing? It could be
Hollywood calling with a long list of mobile-entertainment initiatives.
During the past few weeks, MTV Networks launched its entertainment content
directly to Sprint PCS customers with video-enabled phones, CBS Digital
announced development of an original soap opera for the smallest screen, and Fox
Mobile Entertainment opened Mobizzo, a one-stop online shop for cell-phone
Everyone is staking out turf on the mobile airwaves. Studios, networks and other
entrepreneurial content creators see mobile as "the next big thing" and are
trying out numerous business models in order to devise winning strategies. Even
as the current return on investment is "to be determined," content creators are
taking aggressive steps into the space, based at least in part on the enormous
success of cell-phone entertainment in Europe and Asia, which are one to three
years ahead of the U.S. market.
Mobile content offers many potential rewards, of which profitability is only
one. Opportunities also exist in terms of creating synergy among platforms,
reinforcing loyalty to TV programs and, of course, extending brands.
"We want to be anywhere kids are," Nickelodeon Digital Media executive vp Steve
Youngwood says. "Our overall mission is about being on all platforms relevant to
kids, and mobile is one of them. We're about being as ubiquitous as possible."
Ubiquity is a major theme threaded through all mobile-content strategies. CBS
Digital Media vp wireless Cyriac Roeding cites a recent study that found that
64% of 25- to 35-year-olds always or almost always have a cell phone on their
"The cell phone might be the screen you look at more than any other screen,"
Mobile ESPN vp product development John Zehr says. "It's critical that ESPN
speak to sports fans that way."
The arena of video content for mobile platforms is so fresh that business
strategies are practically evolving in real time. Fox Mobile Entertainment
president Lucy Hood notes that her company's wide range of mobile strategies
include sponsorship (text voting on "American Idol"), premium play with original
video mobisodes ("24: Conspiracy") and deals with carriers such as Cingular and
T-Mobile that allow fans to download familiar content. Mobizzo marks Fox's next,
as-yet-untested move into mobile.
Amp'd, which has struck strategic alliances with MTV, Comedy Central, VH1, CMT,
MTV2, mtvU, TV Land, Spike TV and Logo, has two business models: Amp'd Mobile,
which integrates mobile entertainment with traditional cell-phone services and a
branded interface (see related story at right), and Amp'd Live, which makes
content from its partners available for licensing by carriers worldwide.
The deals being struck between content providers and mobile companies vary,
according to lawyer Ivy Kagan Bierman.
"Some of (the deals) have minimum guarantees, which the cellular providers pay
to the content providers," says Bierman, a partner in Loeb & Loeb's
entertainment and litigation departments. "Beyond that, there are generally
license fees for the content and sometimes negotiated splits with respect to the
revenue generated by the exploitation of the content on the mobile devices."
Bierman adds that the new medium is introducing legal issues for anyone in the
game. Most notably looming on the horizon is the question of who will be
responsible for paying guild residuals.
While mobile strategies most likely will sort themselves out over time, studios
and networks are focused on expanding their brands to devices that are
practically welded to the ears of the youth demographic.
"Wireless is a great way to establish loyalty with our programs and make sure
that when people aren't watching TV, they're still connected with our shows,"
says Roeding, who notes for example that a fan of E! Entertainment Television
can receive video alerts of breaking news about his or her favorite celebrities.
At Fox, Hood describes mobile content as "a new kind of parallel medium that can
really enhance people's relationship with a brand they love. You've got to
believe that someone who has a 'Family Guy' ringtone on his phone is also
watching the show."
Prevailing wisdom states that mobile viewers "snack" on content, and therefore
the content that works best is short (one to three minutes), eye-catching and --
for the key youth demo -- funny or thrilling. It's a world apart from
repurposing hourlong episodic TV shows for international, DVD or airlines, so
studios and networks must adopt new strategies to make their deep libraries
compatible with the demanding parameters of the extra-small screen.
Youngwood notes that Nickelodeon's current mobile strategy consists primarily of
extracting clips from existing programs, including the popular shows "Dora the
Explorer," "The Fairly OddParents," "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" and "SpongeBob
SquarePants" -- all of which are carried on the Verizon V Cast-powered Nick
"But for live-action shows, we will do funny outtakes or interviews with
live-action talent," he says. "We'll be creating material like DVD extras --
shortform, but based on properties that kids love."
Comedy Central executive vp and general manager Michele Ganeless says her
channel plans to clip and repurpose material from its "incredibly deep library,"
which includes "The Daily Show" and "South Park." This month, Comedy Central is
set to debut "Samurai Love God," an original animated mobile series voiced by
"Daily Show" correspondent Ed Helms and adult-film star Jenna Jameson.
"We look at everything we do as a little development lab," Ganeless says. "Right
now, for us, it's about the content."
Bunim-Murray Prods. ventured into mobile entertainment with mobisodes based on
outtakes of its Fox reality TV show "The Simple Life."
"We thought we could customize reality content in ways that might be accepted
over that platform, so we did it, almost as an experiment, for the second season
of 'Simple Life,'" Bunim-Murray CEO Joey Carson says. "The success of that led
us to believe there is clearly a demand there."
If you can't tick off the names of five original programs on your cell phone,
there's a reason. Starwave Mobile executive vp and general manager Larry Shapiro
notes that content providers have been repurposing assets and extending their
brands -- rather than creating new programming -- until they have a better
handle on how audiences will respond to original mobile content.
"I believe original content works best when it's related to nonoriginal content
that people are familiar with," he says -- and many experts agree.
Mondo Media's Flash-animated "Happy Tree Friends" offers a sterling example of
the benefits of familiarity. A hit among young adults, "Friends" began as a
series of online shorts in 2000, then migrated to DVD after the Internet bubble
burst. Mondo co-founder and CEO John Evershed recalls that his company created
"Friends" apparel, accessories and action figures at that point -- and then was
ready when video-enabled handsets arrived.
"It was popular in Germany very early on," says Evershed, who also notes mobile
deals for "Friends" throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America. (The Walt Disney
Co.-owned Starwave Mobile recently inked an exclusive licensing agreement to
carry "Friends" in the U.S.)
Because the business of creating mobile content is so new, there is no surefire
formula for success. Roeding and Hood agree on three essential elements:
communication, personalization and entertainment.
"The sweet spot is where these three circles intersect," says Roeding, adding
that the new CBS soap opera "Hey, It's Me" has been designed to hit that spot.
Whereas many media experts have bemoaned the limitations of extra-small screens,
Roeding cites their strengths.
"This is the only medium you carry with you while you're using other media --
when you watch TV, walk down the street and see a billboard (or) listen to
radio," he says. "It makes other media interactive."
Amid all of the recent activity, though, no one seems to have an answer to the
all-important question: Is anyone making money with mobile content?
"We've seen a lot of money out of Europe," says Evershed, who declines to reveal
a dollar amount.
Games, ringtones and wallpaper are booming, but it cannot yet be determined
whether the bottom line for mobile video content will be written in red or black
"The jury is still out on what the economic model is," Ganeless says. "I wish I
could say we know exactly what our margins and return on investment will be,
(but) we're still figuring it out as we go along."