TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: The Shorter, Faster, Cruder, Tinier TV Show

The Shorter, Faster, Cruder, Tinier TV Show

Monty Solomon (
Mon, 29 May 2006 13:33:51 -0400

The New York Times

One morning earlier this spring, Dave Sirulnick and a group of fellow
MTV executives gathered in a 29th-floor conference room overlooking
Times Square to observe a time-honored television ritual, one they'd
performed dozens of times. They were shaping a pilot, the hopeful
chrysalis of a television show. Three months of hard work and soul
searching had gone into this particular effort, so the assembled team
waited to see its work in progress with no small amount of
anticipation. In these kinds of meetings, someone usually pops the
show into a DVD player and it materializes on a flat-screen television
the size of a coffee table. But this time the six people in the room
ambled over to Sirulnick, a slender man who was peering over a pair of
rimless glasses at a small, black Samsung cellphone. "Do we all stand
behind each other or what?" he asked, unsure of the protocol. As
everyone circled around his chair like kids gawking at a science
experiment, Sirulnick pressed a button on the phone, and the tiny
screen in his palm flickered to life.

What appeared on it didn't feel much like a TV show as you and I have
come to know it. Clocking in at just over three minutes, it seemed
vaguely schematic, with lots of close-ups and static scenes. But
Sirulnick watched it with the hope that what he was seeing - even
through the pixel smears and buffering pauses of today's mobile-video
technology -- was nothing less than the future of television.

A boyish-looking 41-year-old man wearing jeans and a
green-and-purple-striped sweater, Sirulnick was in the room that
morning because just a few months earlier MTV redrew its
organizational chart and gave him a new job it considers extremely
important, one with the unwieldy title of executive vice president for
multiplatform production, news and music. Translated, it means that he
is the guy responsible for figuring out how his network - one of the
most recognizable in the world, with annual ad revenue of more than a
billion dollars -- will continue to thrive creatively, and thus
financially, in a world where television's center of gravity seems to
be rapidly shifting, away from immobile TV sets and toward roving
screens: laptops, P.D.A.'s, iPods, game players and, most important,
cellphones. The shift is not simply changing the way the medium looks
and feels. Even now, in its infancy, mobile video is starting to make
the very definition of television, as a place where people watch
"shows" on "channels," sound pleasantly anachronistic, like a
description from an old issue of Popular Mechanics. It may also be
creating a new way to make a whole lot of money: one model projects
that the worldwide market for mobile television will be $27 billion by

By the most optimistic counts, there are only about 3 million people
out of the almost 200 million cellphone users in the United States who
now watch video on their phones. Other analysts say the number of
those who watch regularly is much lower, which leads them to ask
whether people really want another version of television, one they can
literally take anywhere. Judging by what is happening in other parts
of the world, where the mobile-television experiment is well under
way, the more pertinent questions are: What are they going to want to
watch? Will it be regular live television, redirected to their phones?
Or typical television fare, edited and re-packaged to suit a screen
smaller than a business card? It might end up being neither, but
instead a new amalgam that feels little like traditional television
and more like the increasingly video-dominated Web - like computer
games, like the kind of shaggy user-generated video and mashed-up
video clips that began as novelties for people killing time in their
cubicles but are now on their way to becoming big business.

MTV's international channels have been providing cellphone
entertainment, mostly repackaged TV clips, for almost a year. In fact,
MTV claims to be the world's largest mobile-content provider. When
the demand for cellular television materializes in the United States,
people like Sirulnick say that it is likely to be most intense among
the generation of young people that has never known a world without
wireless, for whom a cellphone is not just a phone but an
entertainment center, a dating service, a scrapbook, a virtual hangout
and a fashion statement -- in other words, MTV's core viewers, the
network's to keep or lose.

You could argue that of all the traditional television empires, MTV
has a better-than-even shot at keeping them. It has had to reinvent
itself constantly (some critics would say for the worse) to keep pace
with its ever-young audience. And it popularized short-attention-span
creations like music videos and created artful station breaks that at
least seem likely to translate well in an on-the-fly wireless world.

But MTV is approaching its 25th birthday; in the cable world, it's
what is known as a mature brand. And on the morning that Sirulnick and
company fine-tuned their pilot, other veteran producers, screenwriters
and television executives were hard at work all over New York and Los
Angeles on their own cellphone projects. Maybe more worrisome than
these conventional competitors were the countless Web companies, also
cranking out cellphone content, led not by television experts but by
hordes of 20-somethings all angling to become the Sumner Redstones of
broadband and wireless, bypassing the TV industry altogether.

For television veterans, the advance of cellphone television makes for
competing anxieties. They're worried that they may be moving far too
slowly, but they're anxious, too, that they could be moving in the
wrong direction. It's a feeling something like television's pioneers
must have had, trying to create visual shows for a nation still
huddled around the radio. But another, perhaps more apt, comparison is
to the early years of the Internet, when so-called content providers
pumped prodigious amounts of material and ideas onto the Web and hoped
that the demand for it would follow. More often than not, it didn't.

Post Followup Article Use your browser's quoting feature to quote article into reply
Go to Next message: Monty Solomon: "Parents Making Use of TV Despite Risks - New York Times"
Go to Previous message: Chris Brummitt: "So You Think -You- Have Problems?"
TELECOM Digest: Home Page