Mobile folks not on same page

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Two panels at the Mobile World Congress made it clear here Thursday that tensions between the media and telco worlds have not gone away as the two continue to try to work out business models that will finally give legs to mobile video.

"Content owners are still peeved about things like revenue share," said Neeraj Roy, CEO of Hungama Mobile, a distributor of mobile content like Bollywood films in the massive India market. "I do not believe we are all sitting around a round table at this point. We are still at opposite ends of the table."

Peter Mercier, head of mobile at BBC Worldwide, ticked off a litany of problems plaguing mobile video, including the increasing number of technology standards with which his company and consumers have to contend. He took a dim view of the prevailing business model, citing the costs of securing rights and managing the operations of a market footprint lacking in scale.

"This is nowhere near a mass-market proposition and nowhere near as simple for a broadcaster to find a compelling place in," Mercier said.

He went on to criticize unreasonable pricing, advertiser disinterest and the reluctance of operators to invest in branded content at levels consistent with other pay TV platforms. Although Mercier stopped short of blasting the operators outright, his frustration was evident. "If you're going to launch a consumer proposition, then you've got to stand by it," he said, alluding to mobile content offerings.

Mercier's point was echoed by Stanley Fertig, senior vp at HBO International, who faulted operators for their unwillingness to experiment with free content that could prime the pump for the mobile video market. Fertig said that he pitched operators ad-supported episodes of "Sex and the City" for mobile distribution but can't get any takers ready to move away from the premium model.

"I have not found a single operator in the world that is willing to do that," he said.

Fertig also took exception the operators' price points for premium mobile content. "I think as a general rule we're asking subscribers to pay too much," he said.

But like Mercier, Fertig struck a diplomatic tone when asked to characterize relations between rights-holders and operators. "I don't think we're far apart at all," he said. "Neither of us is making a fortune in mobile content (at) the present, so we have to take a step back."

There was significant interest expressed in the growth of "sideloading," in which consumers find other sources of content like a Web site and transfer video to their phone instead of pulling it down from the operator's wireless network. Sideloading is the predominant conduit for mobile entertainment users in Western Europe and the U.S. according to M:Metrics.

One carrier that has embraced sideloading is AT&T Mobile in the U.S., which sells Apple's iPhone, the device credited with driving the popularity of sideloading.

AT&T CEO Ralph de la Vega encouraged carriers to see sideloading as a viable model that will result in a bigger revenue pie by encouraging greater consumer uptake. Carriers, he said, "are going to have to get used to a different model." But he also encouraged video content owners to switch to a DRM-free business model as is happening in the digital music business.

There also was plenty of discussion among the mobile content chiefs as to the best practices on the nascent platform, whether short- or longform content ruled and the viability of linear versus on-demand. Gary Ellis, vp content and operations at MTV Networks International, reported strong interest in repurposed full-length episodes on mobile. "What we've learned is that people want a more TV-like experience," he said.

He revealed company plans to launch a new mobile channel, MTV Toons, that would make use of the company's animated library fare, including "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "Daria," as well as original programming produced just for mobile. Ellis said there also was interest in mobile movies, citing discussion with fellow Viacom subsidiary Paramount Pictures.
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