Mobile TV content a must, says Sony Pictures Digital VP

Sony Pictures Digital aims to be a key supplier of content to operators offering mobile TV services, according to the company's VP of mobile entertainment.

Even if mobile TV is still in its infancy and poses numerous technical and legal hurdles, major production studios don't want to miss out on the action.

"There are many stumbling blocks to bringing content to mobile devices," Bill Sanders, vice president of mobile programming at Sony Pictures Digital, said Tuesday in an interview on the sidelines of the Mobile Video & Television Summit in London. "But there are also a lot of opportunities."

Sanders, who has worked for a few of the big Hollywood studios, referred to the recent deal between The Walt Disney Co. and Apple Computer as a "wake-up call" for studios still undecided about mobile devices as a new distribution channel for their content.

In October, Apple cut a deal with the ABC television network to make five popular shows from ABC network, which is owned by Disney, available for download on the U.S. computer company's new video player iPod.

"Since then, every major studio in Hollywood has done some sort of reorganizing to give mobile devices greater focus," he said.

Historically, studios have been reluctant to cannibalize their cinema business, according to Sanders. "Thirty years ago, they fought home video to protect their theater seats," he said. "But now home video is a booming business and together with cinema, is generating more revenue for the studios than ever before."

Not only mobile phones and devices, but all other types of digital devices, including memory cards and UMDs (Universal Media Discs), are now on the radar screen of the studios, according to Sanders. "Digital technology has changed the business model for studios almost completely," he said.

Currently, Sony Pictures Digital has an agreement to deliver content as part of a video-on-demand service to the Italian mobile operator H3G SpA, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa.

A special feature of that service is what Sanders calls the "pause-and-resume" function. "Many mobile TV critics have questioned whether people want to watch a long movie on their mobile phone," he said. "I say, yes, they do but not all at once. They want to watch in intervals."

The "pause-and-resume" function, while new to mobile phone content, isn't entirely new in the film industry, according to Sanders. When viewing films at home, Howard Hughes, the billionaire airplane builder and filmmaker, who owned his own network, "used to tell his engineers to pause when he wanted to go to bed," he said.

As for challenges, Sanders pointed to copyrights as one of the biggest. "There are many issues that will need to be resolved to protect rights," he said, referring to the emerging mobile broadcast technology DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting - Handheld). "A lot of people are saying that the quality of a movie copied from a mobile phone is too poor to view on a PC or TV set. But who knows what new technology might make this better someday?"

To avoid complicating the mobile TV market further, the industry, including content providers and mobile phone operators, should agree to common formats and standards, Sanders said. "We don't want to be in a situation where we have to produce content to meet individual requirements of operators," he said. "This will only complicate matters."

Sanders also believes studios and other production companies should produce content especially for mobile devices. "Look at the cable TV industry," he said. "It started repurposing movies and TV series before it began producing its own content, which has proven crucial to attracting new viewers. The same could apply to mobile devices."

Numerous companies are "throwing a lot of money at mobile TV," Sanders said. "It's really like the Wild West, with a whole lot of digging going on to find the right business model."

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