Taking TV With You In The Digital Age Hundreds of people in Washington, D.C., are testing gadgets that allow them to watch local TV on mobile phones and laptops. Broadcasters hope these devices might bring younger viewers back to live TV. But some analysts think the future of video distribution is online, not over the air.

Taking TV With You In The Digital Age

Taking TV With You In The Digital Age

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A Samsung Moment phone that features mobile digital television is displayed at the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Ethan Miller/Getty Images hide caption

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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A Samsung Moment phone that features mobile digital television is displayed at the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

This spring, hundreds of people in Washington, D.C., are testing new gadgets that allow them to watch local TV on their mobile phones and laptops.

In part, mobile digital TV is an effort by broadcasters to reach more viewers. But they're also trying to send a message to Congress that they deserve to keep their airwaves at a time when the Federal Communications Commission wants them to give some back.

Mobile digital TV is already on the air in a handful of markets around the country. The devices that allow you to watch that signal aren't actually for sale yet.

"What we're trying to do is assess consumers' interest, to make this a better service, [and] to understand what they want to watch, where they want to watch it and how they want to watch it," says Anne Schelle, executive director of the Open Mobile Video Coalition.

Testing Viewing Habits

The organization was created by broadcasters to help make mobile TV a reality. The coalition handed out prototype gadgets to roughly 1,000 users in the Washington area. One looks just like a phone with a shiny little TV antenna. Another is a cute pink box that can turn any iPhone or laptop into a portable TV.

Broadcasters are hoping these new devices can bring viewers -- especially younger ones -- back to live, local TV. The number of households that only get over-the-air TV has shrunk from about 24 million in 2004 to about 12 million, as viewers migrate to cable and the Internet. On top of that, the FCC wants TV stations to give up part of their airwaves so that wireless companies can use them to deliver high-speed Internet access.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski described it this way in March: "The team has developed a win-win strategy that creates a mechanism -- an auction -- that gets spectrum on the market, and allows broadcasters on a voluntary basis to say, 'Hey, we'd like to take advantage of the opportunity to share spectrum.' "

Broadcaster Resistance

Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, says he hasn't heard one broadcaster step forward to voice interest in what Genachowski has proposed.

Wharton says the country's TV stations just spent billions of dollars on the switch to digital TV -- a process that freed up a lot of spectrum for wireless companies.

"Yet now the FCC is saying we want broadcasters to give back 120 megahertz more," Wharton says. "Well, the reality is, if you do that, you're going to take away a lot of TV stations across the United States."

The FCC doesn't agree. Because digital signals are more efficient than analog signals, it's possible to fit several digital TV channels in the airwave space of one analog channel.

But Perry Sook, the chairman of Nexstar Broadcasting Group, isn't ready to give up his extra spectrum. Nexstar owns or operates 62 stations in midsized markets around the country.

"We are less than a year past the digital transition wherein the broadcasters gave up 25 percent of spectrum," Sook says. "I think there are a lot of companies that are thinking about how to use the spectrum. What the highest and best use is, only time will tell."

Broadcasters say they might need the extra spectrum for mobile TV, but it might not matter because wherever you're watching broadcast TV, you're still just passively watching whatever is on. Increasingly, viewers want to decide what to watch and when to watch it.

Demand For On-Demand Services

"They want to go to a Web site of some sort and pick what they want to see at that moment," says Rory Altman, director of the consulting firm Altman Vilandrie & Co. He says the future of video distribution is online, not over the air.

Altman says broadcasters know this, too: "And they will hold out until Congress gives them a really significant share of any auction proceeds."

But broadcasters insist there's still a place for old school, over-the-air TV. They're betting that once consumers get their hands on mobile TV, their viewing habits will start to change.

Schelle, of the Open Mobile Video Coalition, says she experienced this firsthand.

"During the day, who watches TV? Well, now I do! Seriously, I've watched more Ellen DeGeneres in the last month on these devices. I love her show; I think she's great," Schelle says.

The question is how many other people will want to spend a beautiful afternoon in the park watching TV.