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.
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Taking TV With You In The Digital Age

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Taking TV With You In The Digital Age

Taking TV With You In The Digital Age

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

No matter how many justices may be texting, there are many tech-savvy people here in the nation's capital. And this spring, hundreds are testing new gadgets that allow them to watch local TV on their mobile phones or laptops. In part, this mobile digital television is an effort by broadcasters to reach more viewers.

But the broadcasters are also sending a message to Congress: Let us keep our airwaves. As reporter Joel Rose explains, the Federal Communications Commission wants them to give up some of those airwaves.

JOEL ROSE: Mobile digital television 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. But I'm getting a sneak peek here in Washington's Dupont Circle.

Ms. ANNE SCHELLE (Director, Open Mobile Video Coalition): What we're trying to do is assess, you know, consumer's interest and make this a better service, to understand what they want to watch, where they want to watch it and how they want to watch it.

ROSE: Anne Schelle directs the Open Mobile Video Coalition.

Ms. SCHELLE: Is it more at home that they're watching it? Is it in the beautiful park that we're sitting in today that they're watching it?

ROSE: Schelle's organization was created by broadcasters to help make mobile TV a reality.

(Soundbite of honking horn)

ROSE: 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.

Unidentified Woman: Two canine siblings are safe and sound together at home.

Unidentified Man: And its all because of a little puppy love in New Hampshire.

ROSE: Broadcasters are hoping these new devices can bring viewers - especially younger ones - back to live, local TV. The number of American households that only get over-the air TV has shrunk to about 12 million, as viewers flee for 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.

Here's how FCC chairman Julius Genachowski put it during an interview last month.

Mr. JULIUS GENACHOWSKI (FCC Chairman): The team has developed a win-win strategy that creates a mechanism - an auction - that will get spectrum on the market, and that will allow broadcasters, on a voluntary basis, to say, hey, we actually would like to take advantage of the opportunity to share spectrum.

Mr. DENNIS WHARTON (Executive vice president, National Association of Broadcasters): I have not heard one broadcaster step up and say yes, I'm interested in that.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

ROSE: Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters. Back in Dupont Circle, he says the country's TV stations just spent billions of dollars on the switch to digital TV, in the process, freeing up lots of spectrum for wireless companies.

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

ROSE: The FCC doesn't think so. 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 isn't ready to give up his extra spectrum. Sook is chairman of Nexstar Broadcasting Group, which owns or operates 62 stations in midsized markets around the country.

Mr. PERRY SOOK (Chairman, Nexstar Broadcasting Group): We are less than a year past the digital transition, where the broadcasters basically gave up about 25 percent of spectrum they were using on an analog basis. I think there are a lot of companies that are thinking about opportunities to use the spectrum. What the highest and best use of, I think only time will tell.

ROSE: 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. And increasingly, viewers want to decide what to watch and when.

Mr. RORY ALTMAN (Director, Altman Vilandrie & Co): They want to go to a Web site of some sort and pick what they want to see at that moment.

ROSE: Rory Altman is director of the consulting firm, Altman Vilandrie & Co. He thinks the future of video distribution is online, not over the air. Altman thinks broadcasters know this, too.

Mr. ALTMAN: And they will hold out until Congress gives them a really significant share of any auction proceeds.

ROSE: 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.

Anne Schelle, at the Open Mobile Video Coalition, says hers did.

Ms. SCHELLE: During the day, who watches TV, right? Well now I do. Seriously, I've watched more "Ellen DeGeneres" in the last month on these devices.

ROSE: The question is how many other people will want to spend a beautiful afternoon in the park, watching TV?

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

INSKEEP: And youre listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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