LAS VEGAS (USA TODAY)- Mobile TV - finally here after years in development - has local TV stations both flummoxed and intrigued.
Several recent developments show that the technology likely will stick around, meaning TV station owners will have to invest heavily to get ready or risk losing a chunk of a small but growing audience that might otherwise tune them out.
"This is the make-or-break year in mobile TV," says John Lawson, executive director of Mobile500 Alliance, a group of media companies that came together to develop a mobile TV app/antenna system called MyDTV.
MyDTV launched in January with trial markets in Seattle and Minneapolis and will expand to Raleigh, N.C., next month. Early adopters in Seattle and Minneapolis watch local TV about 28 minutes a week on average on their iPhone or iPad.
Dyle, a competitor of MyDTV that began operation in August, announced on Monday that it'll add three more markets - Baltimore, Jacksonville and Salt Lake City - to bring the number that have or will have service this year to 39 markets and 116 stations. (Gannett, parent of USA TODAY, is a partner in the consortium of media companies that is developing Dyle).
Also this week, Sinclair Broadcast Group, which operates more than 100 TV stations, said it'll begin broadcasting via Dyle at more than 10 stations in the next six months, broadening its experiment beyond the current two stations.
In using Dyle and MyDTV, TV stations send broadcast signals over the air to a smartphone or tablet (currently limited to Apple devices). Users must pay about $80 to $100 for an antenna dongle, inserted into their device, that receives the broadcast signals.
"We're energized by the technology and anxious to see numbers come back," said John Kukla, vice president of creative services at Fox affiliate KDFW-KDFI in the Dallas area, which has installed Dyle's system.
Aereo - a service that has stirred broadcasters' vigorous opposition to its streaming of local, over-the-air broadcasts to subscribers through the Internet - won an important federal appeals court ruling last month that allows its service to continue. That clearly has unsettled even the largest of broadcasters.
Aereo runs a farm of individually leased antennas - one for each subscriber - in Brooklyn and insists its antennas are no different than the ones purchased at a RadioShack. Broadcasters say Aereo is infringing on their copyrights because it doesn't solicit their permission or pay retransmission fees to stream their content.
At the National Association of Broadcasters conference in Las Vegas on Monday, Chase Carey, COO of Fox network and station owner News Corp., said the company may consider charging for local network content if Aereo's service continues in its current form. "We will not sit by idly and let people steal our signal," he said, predicting broadcasters will ultimately win in the courts.
SERVICES SAY MOBILE TV ADDS VIEWERS
In pitching to TV station operators to adopt their service, Dyle and MyDTV say that mobile TV brings additional viewers, rather than taking them away from the group that watches from the living room TV, and generally gives people more opportunities to watch.
"Existing viewers will watch more TV," says Karen McCall, marketing manager for NBCUniversal, a Dyle investor.
Viewers watching on tablets and smartphones can be tracked more precisely for what they're watching, how long, when - and the collected data can be used to air tailored ads, Lawson says. Typical "30-second ads are a really blunt instrument," he says.
In its Seattle and Minneapolis trials, MyDTV has also inserted more than 3,000 ads on screens that otherwise go black when viewers flip through channels, says Randa Minkarah, senior vice president of revenue at Fisher Communications, a TV station operator that is a lead organizer of Mobile500 Alliance's MyDTV development. TV stations could generate a "potential 7% increase" in revenue from mobile TV viewership, she told a seminar crowd at the NAB conference on Tuesday.
Still, only a tiny fraction of TV stations have rushed to embrace the service. The cost of investing in a nascent technology is a chief concern, especially at a time when ad revenues are declining. TV stations are required to invest about $150,000 in equipment to send mobile signals via Dyle or MyDTV.
"Mobile TV is a no-brainer, but it's not inevitable," Lawson says. "If more broadcasters don't light up their stations, this train will leave. And the future of mobile TV will belong to wireless carriers."