May 30, 2007

telepublishing moves to wireless

It’s Yogi time — déjà vu all over again.

Peter Chernin, Rupert Murdoch’s number two, recently compared the mobile content market to the early cable television days. “No one knows what it looks like,” he told a press conference at the Cable Show. “It’s like the cable business in the late ‘70s right now.”

I was there in the late ‘70s at the birth of the cable programming industry. Chernin is spot-on; today’s mobile market is an echo of the early cable days. What he has missed, however, is that the business model that worked for cable had already been built. That model will now work for mobile content. It is the model of the magazine publishing business: Targeted topics marketed to narrow audiences.

I spoke at the launch of CNN, on June 1, 1980, and at that time, television was all about “broadcasting” — i.e., delivering common content to the broadest possible market. CNN was pioneering “narrowcasting” by bringing targeted programming to a niche audience just like a magazine. In my remarks I called the moment “a telepublishing event marking a watershed in information provision.” Yes, the rhetoric was a bit over the top, but the concept of “telepublishing” was on target and it powered cable into a media force that spawned multiple new channels and many new billionaires.

What I meant by the term “telepublishing” was extending to cable the market segmentation that characterizes the publishing industry’s highly topical, highly targeted magazines. From targeted magazine audiences as diverse as Golf Digest, People, and Civil War Times have come the Golf Channel, E!, and The History Channel Now it’s mobile’s time for the next iteration of this business model.

I wish I could come up with something catchy like “telepublishing” for mobile. “Phonepublishing” doesn’t seem to cut it. Whatever you call it, however, the model is the same: Targeted content with themes that already are proven in the print world simply being transported to another consumption vehicle.

Wireless is probably an even better play on the publishing model than cable since, unlike cable which tethers the consumer, mobile is as portable as a magazine. Use it anywhere; while commuting, while waiting for the kids to end soccer practice, or just plain while grabbing five minutes of downtime.

We’ve already seen an early form of “phonepublishing” — ringtones that simply move proven content to a new distribution venue. Ringtones caught everyone by surprise and now they generate more revenue than the sale of CD singles. We shouldn’t be surprised when magazine content starts showing up on our mobile devices.

Sure, we’ve got some development work to do. Having to click through multiple layers on a phone’s deck isn’t exactly inviting. But the forces are aligning.

Back in the ‘70s everyone told Ted Turner and others they were crazy, that the predominantly rural cable systems could never deliver the necessary audience. Their content, however, drove the audience right into the un-built urban areas. The similar gripe today on mobile is that the networks are too slow and the screens too small. Those shibboleths are already starting to go up in smoke as well. In the six months ended December, 2006 the number of 3G* phones in consumers’ hands doubled to almost 21 million. Not only do the higher speed 3G networks facilitate content, but also that ‘21 million’ number is beginning to sound like an audience… an audience that will continue building as consumers upgrade to new devices.

Stand back Peter Chernin, the model has already built and modern Ted Turners are making it mobile.