Entertainment comes calling

Phones and other devices becoming the new TV

Tech

November 17, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

Walk through the TV department of your average electronics store, and it might seem like the trend is "bigger is always better."

In recent weeks, though, that trend has reversed in a, well, big way. Earlier this week, American Online announced a new service, In2TV, that will allow users to download episodes of about 100 classic programs, such as Wonder Woman and Eight Is Enough, for free to their computers, but with unskippable ads embedded in them.

But the computer monitor isn't even remotely the smallest means people are using to "watch TV" these days.

Recently, Apple Computer Inc. announced that it had sold 1 million video downloads in the 19 days since it unveiled its video iPod. Among the top sellers were $1.99 episodes of ABC's hits Lost and Desperate Housewives, which can be seen on iPods or computers.

Then, NBC confirmed that it would make video excerpts of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno available for download by Sprint mobile telephone customers. The network is betting that in exchange for the convenience of watching Leno's monologue anytime, fans will pay for something they already get for free.

"Apple's success certainly reinforces the view that there is a demand out there," said Bob Wright, chairman of NBC Universal. "How big? It's too soon to say. But it's for real, and it's going to be with us for a long time."

Welcome to the age of fast-food TV: nuggets of news and entertainment that can be consumed on cell phones, video game consoles and digital music players. Whether the programming is downloaded via iTunes software or over a cellular network, the trend is changing where -- and how -- TV watchers are tuning in.

"The notion of a particular screen being tied to a particular kind of content is breaking down," said Van Baker, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "It's what kind of screen is available to me right now, and that's what I'll use."

For Hollywood, cell phones with color screens and the ability to download video files couldn't come at a better time. Executives are under pressure to find new revenue as the industry's profit engines -- DVD sales, 30-second commercial spots and syndicated TV reruns -- lose steam.

Broadcast networks and cable channels, wary of losing advertising dollars to the Internet, have been experimenting for months to learn what works -- and what doesn't -- on an itty-bitty screen.

"What are the three things that you always have with you? Your money, your keys and your cell phone," said Lucy Hood, president of Fox Mobile Entertainment. "If we can deliver a fun entertainment experience on this device, that will make it a very powerful medium."

But figuring out what can be successfully adapted and sold on a hand-held device has been a process of hit and miss.

A clear winner in the small format is comedy. Among the most popular offerings on Verizon Wireless' V Cast video service, for example, are clips of Jon Stewart's fake news headlines on Comedy Central's The Daily Show. V Cast subscribers, who pay $15 a month, also can see bits from ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live and even Sesame Street.

Leno is the first big-name comedian to be featured on Sprint TV Live, a $9.99-a-month video service that the cellular provider launched in September. As part of the package, subscribers can watch live feeds from the Weather Channel, MSNBC, Discovery and Fox News Channel.

News and sports highlights also have lured consumers. Several cellular phone carriers have contracted with NBC, CNN and ESPN, among others, to provide snippets of the day's news.

To be sure, most U.S. consumers have yet to try such offerings. Only about 11 percent of cell-phone owners use wireless data services, according to Forrester Research. Of the $111 billion spent on mobile services last year, research firm Yankee Group estimated that only 5 percent was for data, mostly text messaging.

"Consumers still, by and large, think of their cell phones as something for communication rather than for entertainment," said Charles S. Golvin, principal analyst with Forrester Research.

But Nancy Tellem, president of CBS Paramount Network Television Entertainment Group, has no doubt that cell-phone TV will catch on.

"All I have to do is look at my kids and see how they watch television," said Tellem, noting that they're often text-messaging on their cell phones as they watch TV.

Some studios are taking a more cautious approach: making existing or repackaged entertainment content available on cell phones merely as a promotion. Universal Pictures, for example, put its trailer for King Kong on Sprint TV.

Beginning last week, Verizon V Cast subscribers also will have access to recaps of several Warner Bros. shows, including Smallville, Gilmore Girls and Nip/Tuck. ABC also condenses some shows.

At NBC, the decision to put the reigning king of late night on a 1 1/2 -inch screen didn't faze Leno.

"This is just another way of getting the jokes out there," he said, predicting that their arrival on cell phones would have what he called "a wonderful effect" on the car insurance industry: "People driving off the road."

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