digital reporter

Lesson learned from Finland cold shoulder

For a peek at how the writers strike might end, look away for a minute from the glitz of Los Angeles and New York. Look instead several thousand miles north and east to Helsinki, Finland, where, despite the descending winter dreariness, an ongoing, year-old mobile TV travail shines light on what will happen in the big-time world of late-night talk shows and multimillion-dollar sitcoms.

Late last year, a TV transmission company named Digita, owned by French media group TDF, launched a commercial mobile-TV broadcasting service in Finland via DVB-H networks. Digita licensed a dozen or so channels and got them to participate in a successful trial. The plan would be to then sell access to Finnish cellular carriers, which would resell access to consumers outfitted with broadcast-equipped phones.

Sure as saunas and reindeer steaks, mobile TV would fly in Finland, a land that invented the ringtone business and whose economy relies on the world's largest mobile phone vendor, native son Nokia. After all, trial participants had said they would be willing to pay about $14 per month for the service.

There was only one problem. Someone forgot to check with the folks who sold the rights to the broadcasters in the first place. One by one, the dozen or so broadcasters that had participated in the trial said they could not provide content to Digita because they did not have rights to provide the content for commercial mobile TV.

Digita was left with a total of one video channel, Voice TV, a music video station. Things turned so downbeat that Nokia even decided at the time to withhold its broadcast-equipped handset from Finnish stores.

"It totally stopped the market," recalls Tarja Rautio, Digita's service manager for mobile TV. That should resonate with anyone looking at kissing goodbye to live Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jon Stewart.

In Finland, it wasn't necessarily the writers who intervened. Copyright groups representing writers, musicians and actors said that if their stuff was going out on the new platform of mobile TV, they wanted a cut.

But the principles are the same as those the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers now face in Hollywood. Broadcasters worldwide are so busy rebranding themselves as content providers ready to sell programs to the world's plethora of PCs that they're forgetting about those who supply them.

Any independent TV production that's churning out product in half the time for half the budget knows the squeeze. I remember going to MIPTV a few years ago, when all things digital were really starting to move center stage. The first conversation I had upon arrival was with an indie TV producer. I gushed about the lively new world of mobile and Internet video. He practically went for my jugular.

"They want all this stuff from us, but they're not paying us," he growled.

Now writers understandably want their fair cut. And they deserve it.

In Finland, the parties talked. Slowly, broadcasters went back to their suppliers and offered more compensation.

Digita is still smarting. It doesn't expect to offer a full-blown commercial service until the spring, a year and a half behind schedule.

If CBS, NBC and others really believe they are content companies, they should heed the lesson that Digita provides but not take 18 months to do so. They should start honoring their content creators with a bigger slice of the action rather than taking goods from them as if writers were some off-the-shelf provider of an all-in-one tonic.

I've seen what happened in Finland. The American broadcasters will give in. If they don't, I'll jump in an arctic lake next time I'm in Lapland.
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