Apple tablet Europe's mobile TV launch pad?

Broadcasters rush to launch apps for live streaming of content

COLOGNE, Germany -- For once, European television is keeping up with the times.

Apple's iPad has been on sale in Europe less than two months now and only in selected territories but Euro networks are showing geek-like glee embracing the new tablet technology, launching i-capable apps and mobile services.

Two continental giants -- RTL in Germany and France's Canal Plus -- this week launched apps providing live streaming of their top-rated network broadcasts. In Britain, the BBC said fully 10% of all requests made by portable devices for its popular iPlayer catch-up service last month came from iPad users. In the Netherlands, where iPads go on sale for the first time Friday, commercial network SBS and pubweb NOS already have Apple-ready services a-waiting. Even struggling commercial net Five is jumping on the iPad wagon, announcing plans to launch a catch-up TV app this fall to coincide with the relaunch of its on-demand service Demand Five.

European networks are clearly hoping Apple's iPhone and its trendy tablet could provide the launch pad for mobile TV and with it new lucrative revenue streams.

Cell phone use in Europe is higher than the U.S. and high-speed broadband is commonplace in all major centers. But the mobile television roll out in the region has been sluggish. Networks are counting on the iPad to change that.

The early signs are good. RTL's new live streaming app -- currently only available for the iPhone and iPod touch -- catapulted to the number two slot on Apple's App Store in Germany less than 24 hours after its launch Wednesday night. The service, which is free to download but charges users €1.59 a month ($2.00) after a 30-day trial period, allows live-streaming of RTL regular broadcasts, including hit formats "DSDS" and "Das Supertalent." The RTL app also features an electronic program guide and push services for news and other events. In addition to the monthly charge, RTL includes tacks on pre-roll ads in front of its videos.

Robert Fahle, head of mobile services at RTL's new media division RTL interactive, told THR the network plans to launch an iPad-ready app later this year, likely in time for the new television season this autumn.

We think the user profile for the iPad will be different than for our iPhone/iPod apps," Fahle said. "(iPhone users) typically use them several times a day for short periods -- getting news, the weather, checking out a short video. We expect the iPad's larger screen will mean it is better suited to more and longer video and streaming content -- obviously ideal for a broadcaster like us."

"Apps are an attractive business model, both paid and ad-sponsored offerings," added Manfred Neumann, head of mobile and new business at SevenOne Intermedia, a subsidiary of RTL competitor ProSiebenSat.1. SevenOne apps -- including live streaming services for hit format "Germany's Next Top Model" and sports magazine "Ran" -- have already topped one million downloads in the territory.

The iPad's launch in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the U.K. on May 28th dovetailed nicely with the lead up to the soccer World Cup. Host broadcasters such as the BBC and Sky Deutschland saw mobile viewership spike for the tournament thanks in part to iPad apps allowing fans to stream games live on-the-go.

Broadcasters from Barcelona to Berlin are bullish about the technology's potential but problems remain. Rights are one issue. RTL isn't streaming any of its imported U.S. films or series via its new app, as it doesn't have the rights. The BBC's popular news app is now only available outside the country after Brit newspapers complained the service might damage the market for their own applications.

Another issue is the mobile infrastructure. Europe's 3G networks are a step ahead of the U.S. in terms of coverage and capacity but it is unclear if they can handle the amount of data needed to provide seamless streaming of popular events. Broadcasters in several European countries reported problems during live streamings of World Cup games.

"There could be network capacity problems for mobile streaming," admits Robert Fahle of RTL Interactive. "We've seen before on the Internet that popular video content has resulted in capacity issues for online networks. But we don't want to wait for new mobile networks. We want to use the structure that is in place and are all counting on new mobile-TV technologies to allow more video streaming in the future."

For European networks, still suffering from a slump in traditional TV advertising, that mobile iPad-driven future, can't come soon enough.

Benjamin Jones in Madrid and Rebecca Leffler in Paris contributed to this report.
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