Broadcasting’s Future is All About Mobile

The demand for mobility has been with us since the dawn of electronic mass media. Makers of receivers have been trying to pack more and more capabilities into smaller packages ever since crystal radios were the rage. And it will be the largest part of television’s future. Smart phones will gradually replace all the dumb phones and everybody with have a TV receiver in their pocket or purse. Broadcasters are in a perfect position to feed these personal TV sets — but only if they hang on to their spectrum.

By Harry A. Jessell

TVNewsCheck, May 20, 2011 1:01 PM EDT

I had an epiphany while reading our story a couple of weeks ago about how stations reacted to the tornadoes that tore through the region: the future of broadcasting is personal, mobile devices — smart phones and tablets.

Here’s the quote from WTVC Chattanooga News Director Tom Henderson that triggered the revelation: “We had people tell us stories about hiding in the bathtub, the power off, watching us on their iPhones, hearing the reports and warnings. They saw it as a lifeline.”

These stories of disaster coverage by TV stations are routine. I been writing or editing them since I first went to work for Broadcasting magazine in 1978. But this is the first one is which broadcasters were stressing the importance of pushing out their coverage on social media and mobile apps so that viewers could follow the action on the devices they took with them as they fled from the storms and that worked even when the power went off.

All the great technology and expertise that broadcasters can bring together to cover storms mean nothing, if they can’t deliver it to people where and when they need it.

Television on the big screens in living rooms and bedrooms isn’t going anywhere. Broadcasters will continue to serve those sets either directly with their over-the-air signals or indirectly through carriage on cable, satellite and the new OTT platforms. As I have argued here before, maintaining that OTA segment is vital since it gives broadcasting its ubiquity and its edge over the wired media.

But broadcasting’s real future is mobile. Smart phones will gradually replace all the dumb phones and everybody with have a TV receiver in their pocket or purse. And tablets with screens that offer a better TV experience look as if they are here to stay, too, even if they never leave the house.

The good news is that broadcasters are in a perfect position to feed these personal TV sets.

Today, stations can reach the smartphone via the wireless telco’s broadband networks as WTVC and others did in the tornado zone. It takes some work. Programming has to be reformatted for the small screen and apps must be created for each of the proliferating mobile platforms.

Coming up later this year or early next is mobile DTV. Using a portion of their own digital channels, stations can broadcast linear channels, perhaps simulcasts of their over-the-air service. Later on, they’ll be able to offer a pay tier and VOD.

The Advanced Television Systems Committee is developing a standard for near-real time mobile DTV, which will allow broadcast content to be received and stored on devices for recall at the user’s convenience. It’s not exactly interactive, but it will seem like it.

And for the long term, the ATSC has also begun work on the next-generation of digital TV broadcasting, which could be ready within five years. The next-gen system will close the gap between wireless broadband and broadcast, allowing station to offer far more programming with a far more rugged and reliable signal.

To be part of this mobile future, and possibly be a dominant force in it, broadcasters have to keep investing in the work of the ATSC and, above all, hang on to their spectrum. Without it, broadcasters will lose control of their own destiny. They will be just another content provider queuing up outside the doors of Verizon and AT&T.

So, if the FCC asks you to voluntarily give up your spectrum, just say, “No thanks. I have better things in mind than selling it for 10 cents on the dollar.”

On the wall of my office, I have a picture of my mother in 1938 when she was just 18. It’s one of my favorites. She’s sitting on a beach with her legs tucked under her and wearing a modest, but daring (for the time) two-piece bathing suit — the first two-piece in her hometown of Wilkinsburg, Pa., she always claimed. Next to her blanket is a portable radio with a dial, three knobs and a speaker grill. It’s big, about the size of my ink-jet printer set on end, and I’m sure heavy due to the tubes, metal chassis and oversized dry cells needed to power it. Because of its size and weight, you would say the radio was more portable than it was mobile.

But in 1938, this was the Apple iPad2 — totally cutting edge. You could take your favorite music, radio show or baseball team with you to the front porch or picnic or beach.

The point is, the demand for mobility has been with us since the dawn of electronic mass media. Makers of receivers have been trying to pack more and more capabilities into smaller, more portable packages ever since crystal radios were the rage. Transistors and car radios gave radio a second life in the 1950s after the advent of TV threatened to snuff it out. Before stadiums had giant TV screens, fans would bring portable TVs to games to catch the replays. I remember boom boxes in the 1980s with five-inch, black-and-white screens.

This trend will continue, although I’m not sure how the receivers can get any smaller.

Mobile is part of broadcasting’s past and it will be the largest part of its future. It just took me awhile to figure it out.

Posted in In the News