Third generation mobile phones have tremendous potential, and the race is on to produce the first really compelling content. Peter Keighron reports.
Third generation mobile phones have tremendous potential, and the race is on to produce the first really compelling content. Peter Keighron reports.

Recent statistics show that you will have upgraded your mobile twice (three times if you're under 24) by the time you've finished reading this article. I'm exaggerating, but there's no doubt the 3G bandwagon is rolling - apparently 20 million 3G phones were sold last year and there are a lot more to come. The phones look great, the screens are ever sharper and the downloads are constantly improving. Shame about the content.

"Content is not as compelling as it ought to be," says BBC Broadcast head of business development Tanya Price, "it doesn't seem to be translating with the splash it ought to be."

What's needed, it seems, are some new ideas. "We're very much at the foothills regarding content on mobiles," says Price. "Now we're going to have to be a bit more experimental and different. The network owners are looking for something that pushes the boundaries a bit more and gives them more of a reason to develop content off the back of existing [brands] or to think about commissioning new content."

So, if you dream of seeing your work down there on the small screen, what do you do?

Who's the boss?

First of all, you have to understand a bit about the business.

The mobile industry is run by the phone manufacturers and, most importantly, the five current network owners - 3, Orange, O2, T-Mobile and Vodafone. It's the network owners who, ultimately, are the commissioners of any mobile content. The industry sees content purely as a means to two ends: to drive sales of their phones and to drive subscriptions to their network.

That's the first problem for content providers. The network controllers want content exclusive to their network. It's as if Sony was the "broadcaster/commissioner" and wanted programmes you could only view on Sony TVs while Hitachi commissions programmes that will only play on Hitachi TVs.

The second problem is that these imperatives produce a particular mindset in the networks. "The equivalent of commissioning editors at the networks are absolutely not like TV commissioning editors," says Somethin' Else director of interactive Paul Bennun. "They don't conceive of audiences in the same way. They come at it in terms of very specific marketing segments that have been supplied to them by the marketing departments. They also have a very rigid marketing and product strategy into which any idea is going to have to fit."

These people speak a different language. They're used to lunching with the chief executive of the Premier League, the managing director of Pepsi and the head of marketing at Sony. They have problems focusing on figures with less than five noughts in them.

Whose door do you knock on?

Nevertheless, while the mobile world might seem unfamiliar and uninviting, the bottom line is that it needs good content ideas and it's got money to pay for them.

So if you've got a good idea, where do you take it?

"I don't think there's one key to the door because it's such a new area," says Mike Short, vice-president of research and development at O2. "Going to the operators and saying: 'I've got this idea, what do you think?' is one way, but I also think some of the specialist companies who are looking at promotions are interested in this and some of the TV channels are exploring it too."

Certainly for the smaller producer the best path is probably to go to a broadcaster - most have new media departments - or one of the growing number of intermediary agencies, companies that specialise in bringing ideas to the network operators.

Television broadcasters will, of course, be more likely to want ideas related to their programmes or ideas that could develop into programmes. That might not always be the case, however.

"By the end of the year we hope to be commissioning pure mobile content," says Andy Taylor, managing director of Channel 4 New Media. "So if you've got a great idea it doesn't have to be associated with a terrestrial window."

What do you bring to the table?

Whatever door you knock on, the most important thing is to make sure you've got the right idea in your pocket. And the first step towards developing a good mobile content idea is to know your potential viewer.

"You've got to understand how people use phones," says Endemol UK director of interactive media Peter Cowley. "I think they'll watch a clip in the bus queue, on the tube, on the train, when they've not got anything else to do - it's filling that gap in time. Where people used to play games on their mobile phone they can now get richer content."

Don't come with more of the same

"Content producers absolutely need to turn upside down their vision of what the operators want and what people want," says Bennun. "What is absolutely not interesting is another horoscope service. What is not interesting is another straight-ahead soap opera on a mobile phone. People come up with the same idea every six months and think that it's genius and it's not. The operators have heard it all before hundreds of times."

You should, however, be up on what sort of content is working at the moment. And there has been some pretty high-profile mobile content available lately.

Vodafone's 24: Conspiracyconsists of 24 60-second "mobisodes" based on the TV show but written and shot exclusively for mobile. Hollyoaksfans can get daily MMS picture slide exclusive stories of the Mersey TV-produced soap. Celebrity Big Brotherfans could download "behind the scenes" shots, updates and summaries of the show. ITN news, as well as providing mobile news updates, is exploiting its vast archives to produce "today in history" style clips and other mobile exclusive material.

All these examples involve something linked to a TV show or exploiting a TV brand but exclusive to the mobile consumer. Such cross-platform propositions are very much what people are looking for. But if the mobile (both phones and other applications) is to come of age as a medium in its own right, it will need content that exists in its own right. The real opportunity for newcomers in mobile content is in creating something that doesn't lean on existing programming.

"It'll be interesting to see whether we can develop something which is effectively stand-alone and which doesn't have a TV property with it," says Lee Hardman, head of Conker Media, Mersey TV's digital development and production division. "If you can crack that it will be seen as a breakthrough."

Conker is launching its "textual intercourse", which gives new writers and directors the opportunity to tell a story on slides with 160 characters.

"In a strange way it's going back to quite traditional storyboarding," says Hardman. "I think it's going to require somebody with good storytelling skills - traditional skills - in order to get the audience's attention five days a week, 52 weeks a year.''

Meanwhile, Channel 4 has commissioned Empire Square, a series of 90-second to three-minute animation clips to work on a mobile platform. The animation, which will also be shown on E4, is created by the makers of the Gorillaz music project.

These are the sort of projects that might bring new content into the industry. The operators say they are more than open to it.

"I think there is room for newcomers," says Short. "We've seen evidence of that already in the Nokia Shorts last year where they did these 15 and 30-second clips that could be shown and downloaded to a mobile. Many of those were produced by very young producers who were skilled at the art of editing and very tight at story-writing down to very short clips."

Show me the money!

So far, content for mobiles has been produced mainly to push sales of phones and drive traffic through the networks. So there are no typical production budgets in this area. But for producers the quality of content needs to be balanced against the cost of production and revenues that are achievable.

"It takes as much effort to produce good media for mobile as it does for any other platform," says Bennun. "The temptation in this area has been to aim for lower costs in production techniques because you look at the screen and the speaker on the phone and think, why use Digibeta to film something when a little DVCam would do just as well?"

The problem is that it is anybody's guess at the moment as to what revenues are achievable with any particular piece of content. Network operators are loath to give out any guideline budgets or revenue expectations in this market, although it is claimed that services such as the Celebrity Big Brotherand Hollyoaksmobile content were profitable in their own right.

But should producers be looking for one-off payments or percentage of income from the operator's traffic driven by the content?

"The traditional commissioning model is put to one side because you're starting to look at relationships with networks and they have a direct contact with their audience," says Conker's Hardman.

Five steps to mobile content success

Do the business

If you're shooting something you think might have mobile content potential, don't assume the rights come bundled with your television or other rights. "Make sure you're clearing all rights for a mobile platform," says Andy Taylor, managing director of Channel 4 New Media. "That's step one."

Close and slow

Mobile content camera work (and editing) should always stick close to the action. "We learnt from doing the football clips that just taking the straight TV feed and putting it on the screen doesn't work," says freelance consultant Phil Fearnley. "In shots with loads of the fans and moving around you can't see anything. Cut the noise and clutter down to an absolute minimum."

Access all areas

Always look for the "backstage" exclusive footage. "Throughout the shoot think of any behind-the-scenes exclusive footage," says Taylor. "Clips that cannot be seen on a terrestrial window will be extremely valuable, such as behind-the-scenes clips or an interview with a star."

A way with words

On an MMS message you have just 160 characters to make your point. "Writing for mobile content demands more strapline and copywriting skills than TV," says Endemol UK's Peter Cowley. "The text that goes with the clip really has to sell it and encapsulate what you're going to get, because if you're going to go to the effort of downloading it and watching it you want it be what it claims to be."

Stretch it

There's not much point in thinking up one-off brilliant ideas. "It should be something that's a little more enduring and series-related," says BBC Broadcast's Tanya Price. "Things that are an appointment to view. Something short and easy to see on your journey to work that amuses you and sets you up for the day, something you do every day of the week and you might want to subscribe to for a month."