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

The following post contains the sixth and final installment of my essay-in-progress From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and “the Future of Television.” For part one, as well as an introduction to this project, click here. For part two, which lays out the essay’s theoretical and historical contexts, click here. For part three, which looks at the circumstances surrounding the American broadcasting industry’s involvement with mobile television, click here. For part four, which outlines some of the mobile communications industry’s various mobile multimedia initiatives, click here. And for part five, which discusses the mobile communications industry’s promotion of mobile multicasting, click here.

Conclusion: Vapor to vapor

The American broadcast industry’s answer to MediaFLO – and to the spectrum reform campaigns that gained momentum in the 2000s – made its belated debut in January 2010 at the CES, the annual convention of the global consumer electronics industry. The 2010 CES event featured a special “Mobile DTV TechZone” where a group of exhibitors that included the aforementioned LG demonstrated prototypes of mobile devices capable of receiving signals transmitted using the mobile DTV standard, which had be finalized in late 2009. In a remarks given at a reception to celebrate mobile DTV’s official debut, Gordon Smith, the chief executive of the NAB, identified local programming (which remained absent from MediaFLO systems) as the standard’s “killer app,” and predicted that the organization’s members would soon use the standard to establish themselves as the leaders in the delivery of “‘local, live broadcast signals’” to all varieties of mobile devices. “That’s the future,” Smith informed the reception’s attendees, “and it includes broadcasters” (Dickson, 2010).

Throughout 2010 broadcasting groups geared up for a mobile multicasting standard war that would pit mobile DTV against MediaFLO. This war, however, was not to be: Qualcomm announced in December of that year that it was pulling out of the mobile television business. The following March, Qualcomm sold the MediaFLO system’s spectrum to AT&T for $1.925 billion. Less than four years after its launch, the technology LG had once called “the future of television” had returned to the vapor.

With the demise of mobile companies’ designated multicasting solution, clashes between the mobile communications and broadcast industries migrated from mobile television to other fronts. As the end of the decade approached mobile network operators shifted their priorities from developing new services capable of driving up their subscribers’ data usage to coping with the strain being placed on their 3G networks by app-equipped smartphones. AT&T, for instance, reported in 2011 that it had experienced an 8000 per cent increase in data usage in the four years since it acquired the exclusive rights to distribute the Apple iPhone in the United States (Lieberman, 2011). Contrary to predictions from earlier in the decade, it was not mobile television, but rather web surfing, emailing, and social networking applications that were mainly responsible for these massive increases in data traffic. The CTIA and its allies marshaled statistics such as these to underscore the urgency of transferring spectrum from broadcasters to mobile network operators. For example, in a 2011 editorial timed to coincide with NAB’s annual meeting the president of the Consumer Electronics Association warned consumers that “dropped calls and poor reception signals are just harbingers of larger problems down the road if we don’t start putting the broadcasters’ dormant spectrum to good use” (Shapiro, 2011).

Broadcasters gained new ammunition with which to defend themselves against accusations of irrelevance in this period as the popular press became increasingly enamored with the practice (or, more accurately, the premise) of “cord-cutting,” or replacing costly cable or satellite television subscriptions with a combination of over-the-air DTV and on-demand Internet video streaming video services. Though studies suggested that it would be years before cord-cutting had a significant impact on the American television marketplace (Kafka, 2011), the positive media coverage the practice received provided free-to-air broadcasters with a badly-needed public relations boost, which the broadcast lobby capitalized on by touting the benefits of free, local DTV over mobile companies’ expensive and unreliable services (Lieberman, 2011).

Clearly, the mobile communications and broadcast industries no longer require competing mobile television vaporware standards in order to have a reason for a row. In all likelihood, they never did. To pose this possibility is not to suggest that mobile television was inconsequential to either of these adversaries. It is instead a way of emphasizing one last time that the confrontations of the last decade have taken place within the contexts of much longer institutional histories, and in particular within the context of the history of the dynamic protocols that have governed transactions between media and telecommunications companies for more than a century.

Media studies provides a rich vocabulary for describing these institutional histories. It is thus possible to speak of the “convergence” of the telecommunications and broadcast industries’ infrastructures and business models (Jenkins, 2006); of a legacy of “jurisdictional conflicts” between the two industries that stretches back at least as far as the confrontations between RCA and AT&T over control of commercial radio broadcasting in the 1920s (Altman, 2005); or of the ways in which mobile companies and broadcasters “remediate” aspects of each other’s institutional cultures (Bolter and Grusin, 2000). The theoretical models associated with these terms all display strong temporal biases, and address in their own ways the relationships between the old and the new, the residual and the emergent, and the anachronistic and the cutting-edge. But, as this chapter has argued, the relationships between media are influenced as much by space as they are by highly relative measures of time. Convergence, conflict, and remediation occur when the protocols that dictate the arrangements of literal and metaphoric spaces are altered in ways that place media institutions in close proximity with one another. An attentiveness to these protocols and the spaces they organize contributes crucial context to scholarship on media change.

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

One Response to Conclusion: Vapor to vapor (part six of “From Broadcasting to Multicasting: The Mobile Phone and ‘the Future of Television’”)

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

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