Essay: From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and “the Future of Television” (part 1)

Over the last six weeks or so my regular output of spleen-filled tweets has dropped off sharply as I’ve hunkered down on a big writing project that ties together five years’ worth of research on the topic of mobile television. I first wrote on this subject during my PhD. coursework in 2006. Two recent purchases inspired my interest. The first was the LG CU500, which was one of Cingular’s first 3G phones. The second was a subscription to the print edition of the trade magazine TelevisionWeek, which by the spring of 2006 was running articles on mobile television’s implications for the television industry on a weekly basis. That first seminar paper became a presentation at the 2006 Screen Conference, and eventually developed into the article “Little Players, Big Shows Format, Narration, and Style on Television’s New Smaller Screens.” I continued to follow developments in mobile television over the next two years while I was writing my dissertation, the final chapter of which looked at the much longer history of efforts to make television mobile (and, by extension, to extricate television from domestic spaces and the pejorative gendered connotations so often assigned to them within the contexts of discussions about technology).

In the years since I first began writing on mobile television, quite a lot about it has changed. Cingular became AT&T Mobility. Slim-profile flip phones like the CU500 forfeited their status as high fashion fetish objects to touchscreen smart phones like the iPhone. And TelevisionWeek joined many other media industry trades in killing off its print edition. Along the way, the definition of mobile television underwent significant revision. When the project began, trades still used “mobile television” to refer to the on-demand delivery of short video clips to mobile phones over 3G networks. (I’ve written on some of the factors that shaped this conception of mobile television during the first half of the decade in another essay, which appears in the edited collection Television as Digital Media) By 2007, however, a new conception of mobile television – one that bore obvious debts to the technologies and protocols of over-the-air television broadcasting – was gaining prominence. This mobile television involved scheduled channels as opposed to on-demand clips, and transmitted in television’s portion of the radio spectrum, as opposed to over 3G networks.

My most recent essay on mobile television explores the contexts and the consequences of the transition between the clip-based on-demand model of mobile television that I first encountered on my CU500 in 2006 to the broadcast-style model that subsequently eclipsed it. Writing it led me to new sources, including policy documents and work by legal and telecommunications scholars, which in turn spurred me to think more about institutions than I had in my previous work on the topic. This essay is slated to appear in Media Studies Futures, a collection Kelly Gates of UCSD is editing for Blackwell. Portions of it will also constitute the backbone of the final chapter of my book manuscript, which I’m right now titling The History of Television’s Future: Technology, Convergence, and Reform.

On account of the essay’s length (including works cited, around 10K words), I’ve decided to break it up into a series of posts that I’ll publish on the blog over the course of the next week or so. Below the jump is the first, introductory section. (The full bibliography will follow). Standard disclaimer: This is still a work in progress, and I would very much appreciate any feedback you’d care to offer. And since this is a draft, I ask that you please contact me directly before citing it.

Edit May 27 2011: a .pdf of the entire essay is now available on scribd

From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and “the Future of Television”

Both wireless carriers and entertainment companies are used to being the 800-pound gorilla in any room. Now that they’re in the same room, something has to give.

Kanishka Agarwal, Vice President of Mobile Media, Telephia, 2007 [i]

To publicize the June 2007 debut of its latest mobile phone, the consumer electronics giant LG hosted a party “celebrating the past, present and future of television” at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California. The small-screen theme of LG’s Mobile TV Party was a nod to the new phone’s defining feature: inside the LG VX9400 was a chip that enabled it to tune in specially-encoded live television signals transmitted over a vacant channel in television’s UHF band. Joining LG in celebrating the phone’s launch were a bevy of “TV icons,” including The Brady Bunch’s Chris Knight, Star Trek’s George Takei, and Happy Days’ Scott Baio. After walking the red carpet, LG’s guests made their way through a museum-style exhibition of television technologies that began with black-and-white receivers and culminated with the VX9400. This exhibition, which LG dubbed the “living timeline of television history,” opened up onto a massive soundstage on which had been erected scale reproductions of the sets of some of the best-loved programs of the 1960s and 1970s. For the rest of the night partygoers mingled within a recreation of the Brady family’s living room, posed for photos in the captain’s chair of the Space Shuttle Enterprise, and dined on cheeseburgers and shakes in Arnold’s Drive-In (Fathom4, 2007).

LG’s placement of the VX9400 at the conclusion of the “living timeline of television history” translated into spatial terms an argument advanced by many in this period: that mobile devices were “the future of television.” The Mobile TV Party’s retro theme and guest list, however, made it difficult to ignore the many parallels between this vision of television’s future and the medium’s past. Like the black-and-white receivers that greeted partygoers at the entrance of the “living timeline,” the VX9400 featured a tiny, low-resolution screen, used an antenna to receive a handful of channels that aired fixed schedules, and lacked the ability to record, pause, fast forward, or rewind programming. In many respects, this “television of the future” owed more to the 1950s nostalgia sitcom Happy Days than it did to the fantastic world of Star Trek. For aside from its portability and $15 dollar a month subscription fee, there was little to distinguish mobile television from the broadcast television that Happy Days’ Cunningham family would have enjoyed within the comfort of its living room in 1950s Milwaukee.

LG was by no means alone in promoting the notion that television’s future would involve the revival of broadcasting by mobile devices. During the 2000s consumer electronics manufacturers, mobile communications companies, broadcasters, Internet companies, and global media conglomerates poured billions of dollars into the development of technologies for delivering television programming to mobile phones and other portable devices. The first mobile television solutions to emerge from these ventures were patterned after early Internet video platforms, and used mobile carriers’ voice networks to transmit television programming on an on-demand basis. As the decade progressed, however, mobile television’s backers doubled down on their investments in technologies that emulated or refashioned aspects of broadcast television. These solutions, which included Crown Castle Communications’ Modeo, Aloha Partners’ Hiwire Mobile Television, Texas Instruments’ Hollywood mobile digital broadcast platform, mobile DTV, and Qualcomm’s MediaFLO (the technology that powered LG’s VX9400) moved mobile television signals off of carriers’ voice networks and onto portions of the radio spectrum that had until recently been occupied by television broadcasters. Each capitalized on the latest advances in video compression, radio spectrum optimization, power consumption minimization, and mobile chip design to accomplish something that television had done quite well since the 1940s: deliver multiple channels of linearly-scheduled programming over the air and in “real time” to an unlimited number of viewers located within a defined geographic area. “If you thought UHF [broadcasting] had gone the way of eight tracks and Betamax, think again,” noted CNN in 2005. “The broadcast spectrum could be the future of television” (Malik, 2005).

The “irony” that the developers of these “futuristic” digital technologies should aspire to emulate analog broadcasting at a time when fewer than ten per cent of American viewers received their television signals over the air was not lost on contemporary observers. In a review of one of the many commercial mobile television services introduced in this period, a journalist with the Chicago Tribune acknowledged with a smirk that mobile television was “a bit like TV in the ‘70s: no VCR-style recording, only eight channels, and in some areas you’ll have to raise the phone’s antenna to improve reception” (Gwinn, 2007). Media scholars have likewise taken notice of mobile television’s retro inflections. Shani Orgad (2009, p. 198) observes,

the novelty of mobile TV is continuously articulated in tandem with, and in relation to the ‘old.’ Industry experts, journalists and analysts frequently claim that mobile TV evolves from, builds upon and enhances existing and previous technologies and familiar social contexts.

As Orgad notes, and as LG’s Mobile TV Party confirmed, mobile television’s backers have not shirked from these comparisons with television’s past, but rather have encouraged them via the designs of their technologies and themes conveyed within their promotional texts.

Orgad’s description of mobile television’s relationship to broadcasting and other “old media” evokes Jay David Bolter’s and Richard Grusin’s (2000) use of the term “remediation” to describe the dialogic relationships that emergent media may enter into with their predecessors. Indeed, mobile television’s hybridization of the technologies and protocols of television and mobile telephony is exemplary of the ways that established and novel media adopt, rework, comment upon, and reform one another. Scholars have detailed the parallels that exist between mobile television programming and the heavily-segmented formats that predominated on American network television in the late 1940s; between mobile phones’ tiny screens and the playing-card sized cathode-ray tubes of early television receivers; and between the promotion of mobile television in the 2000s and of portable television receivers in the 1950s and 60s (Carey & Greenberg, 2006; Dawson, 2007; Groening, forthcoming). And yet despite the considerable amount of attention that has already been paid to mobile television’s remediation of broadcasting, the questions of why these parallels should exist in the first place and what their consequences might be are rarely addressed. Why have the backers of mobile television, an emergent medium touted by many as “the future of television,” so aggressively sought to revive the residual protocols of broadcast television? What are the factors that motivated the shift from the on-demand paradigm of the United States’ first mobile television services to technologies that behaved more like conventional broadcast receivers? And what are the larger implications of this paradigm shift for media industries, policies, and audiences?

This chapter takes up these questions, exploring the overdetermined contexts and consequences of mobile television’s transition from an on-demand to a broadcast-style paradigm in the United States. It argues that the anachrony of mobile television – and of the conception of the television of the future that mobile television projects – was more than just an “ironic” historical curiosity or a marketing strategy employed to familiarize a novel technology. Rather, mobile television’s remediation of earlier forms of television registered the stakes of broader institutional conflicts that predate the delivery of television to mobile phones. For nearly a decade the adversaries in these lengthy conflicts used mobile television – or, more accurately, the prospect of its widespread adoption in the near future – as a weapon within fights over resources and policies. In fact, many of the conflicts over mobile television had less to do with the technology itself than with the rules that would dictate the terms under which these adversaries would compete and collaborate with one another in the future in media markets that had yet to be defined. And yet despite these adversaries’ mutual preoccupations with positioning themselves for the future, within the contexts of these conflicts anachrony was cultivated, as opposed to tolerated. In these fights, it proved equally effective as a rationale for change as it did as an argument against it.

The following sections offer a diachronic sketch of the sides within and stakes of the conflicts that have shaped – and continue to shape – mobile television, paying special attention to the clashes between mobile communications companies and broadcasters. The war between these two “800-pound gorilla[s]” has been waged on multiple fronts, and has involved shifting configurations of temporary alliances with various other stakeholders (Kapko, 2007). It is not the only conflict that has influenced mobile television’s development, yet it is the one that has most impacted peripheral skirmishes over technical standards and programming formats; content licensing agreements; hardware and monthly subscription pricing; and the division of costs and profits amongst producers, distributors, and various middlemen. By examining the contexts of this particular conflict, this chapter identifies mobile television’s remediation of broadcast television as an institutional practice. Within the field of new media studies, the concept of remediation is most often employed to describe the interaction of the artifacts, forms, social practices, and modes of perception associated with multiple media. Mobile television’s brief history in the United States highlights another dimension of remediation: the interactions of corporate cultures, business models, ideologies, traditions, and reputations that take place when institutions and industries are thrust together by technological convergence and regulatory reform.

[i] Quoted in Kapko (2007).

Continue to part two: “The Uncomfortable proximity of convergence”


About fymaxwell
Max Dawson is a Los Angeles-based media consultant and professor.

6 Responses to Essay: From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and “the Future of Television” (part 1)

  1. Pingback: The uncomfortable proximity of convergence (part two of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”) « fytelevision

  2. Pingback: “The future of broadcast television is mobile” (part three of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”) « fytelevision

  3. Pingback: Emergent technologies, residual protocols (part four of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”) « fytelevision

  4. Pingback: “Real TV, now on your phone” (part five of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”) « fytelevision

  5. Pingback: Conclusion: Vapor to vapor (part six of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”) « fytelevision

  6. Pingback: “Defining Mobile Television” « max dawson dot tv

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