Steps and Stumbles For Cellphone Screens

By Frank Ahrens
Sunday, October 1, 2006

The big media companies aren't looking at just the Web for new viewers and more advertising revenue. Increasingly, they are turning to mobile devices, and with mixed results.

Last week, CBS Corp. rolled out a sports update service that sends scores, headlines, video and fantasy league news directly to cellphones. Also last week, Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN said it would discontinue its own sports cellphone service by the end of the year and would attempt to license the business to mobile carriers.

ESPN required users to buy into a specific plan and purchase a phone -- it was the customers' cellphone service, but offered fewer minutes than plans from Verizon or Cingular. It cost at least $35 per month. CBS's service is available across all major carriers on cellphones that users already own and it costs 99 cents per month, a charge likely to disappear soon, falling in line with the company's desire to make all of its mobile content free and ad-supported.

These are the main reasons to prefer CBS's thinking over ESPN's.

The technology CBS is using, produced by m-Qube Inc., automatically detects the kind of cellphone the user owns. If it's an older phone, the service will send text only. If it's a newer phone capable of showing video, the service will send that.

"We will always send you the best content your cellphone can show," said Cyriac Roeding, vice president of wireless for CBS Digital Media.

Also, instead of dealing with live streaming feeds, which are improved in this era of high-speed connections but can still be annoyingly balky, CBS sends users digital files as messages. They arrive in one piece as a self-contained package -- untethered from the source, like an e-mail -- and can be viewed repeatedly without worrying about connection speeds.

I tested three clips using a Motorola flip phone CBS sent to me. All three began playing pretty quickly. The video quality was acceptable; there was a little digitizing, but not enough to obscure the on-screen text.

CBS's sports feed joins the network's news and entertainment services rolled out in February. The company would not say how many people use those services. New "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric is expected to appear on the CBS mobile feed soon.

CBS's sports service is hosted by actress Ashley Hartman, 21, a former "American Idol" participant who had a small role on Fox's "The O.C."

Roeding called Hartman CBS's "wireless face." It's a good thing, too, because the CBS Sportsline experts that provide the actual reporting to users, such as fantasy league updates, are not thin, good-looking, 21-year-old blond women. Hey, this is showbiz.

Like all major media companies, CBS is racing to make inroads on the Internet and mobile devices, delivering content on whatever device the consumer prefers. The Washington Post Co., for instance, announced recently it is making headlines and news stories available on handheld devices by visiting on a mobile Web browser.

Wireless provider Sprint Nextel Corp. said it will offer a daily video clip service for an additional charge of up to $25 per month. The Sprint clips will be hosted by anchors such as James Brown of CBS's "The NFL Today." (Also not a thin, good-looking, 21-year-old blond woman, despite his many fine attributes.)

ESPN is not a mobile carrier like Verizon. Instead, it follows a business model in which it leases minutes from a carrier, in this case, Sprint. It can be a risky proposition; Fox considered such a model and decided not to pursue it.

In July, Merrill Lynch analysts called on ESPN to "throw in the towel" on the service, saying it cost too much and had too few customers.

Disney recently launched a family-plan service using the lease model that lets parents determine when their kids' phones are on and whom they can call. It even works with the Global Positioning System as a sort of LoJack so parents always know where their offspring are ( ). The service, which first appeared over the summer, is unaffected by ESPN's decision, a Disney spokesman said Thursday.

ESPN licenses some mobile content to other carriers, such as Verizon, so it is not totally out of the game. But after dealing with the hassle of getting their phone service cut off, Mobile ESPN's customers may seek out another supplier for their sports fix, such as CBS.

"We want to get a foot in the door, to establish a beachhead," said Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports. "We want to have a mechanism in place so when the revenue is significant, we're in position. The migration from traditional media has started and it's going to continue. If we're not in front of the migration, we won't be left standing."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company