Fox Mobile is hoping it can convince consumers to shell out to watch TV on their smartphones. The News Corp. subsidiary this morning unveiled Bitbop, a subscription service for smartphone owners that will deliver both streaming and downloadable movies and TV programs to smartphone users.
The app will be free to download when it launches on an unspecified date in the next several weeks, but the app itself will only offer sneak previews — full content will cost $10 monthly over 3G and Wi-Fi connections. Bitbop will work on devices such as the iPhone, Droid and several BlackBerry models at launch with more handsets on the way. Fox, NBC Universal and Discovery will provide content, along with other yet-to-be-announced partners, and some movies will incur a yet-to-be-determined charge beyond the monthly subscription fee.
Whether Fox can finally entice users to pay for on-the-go video is far from clear, though. Qualcomm appears to be repositioning MediaFLO -– the most highly publicized mobile TV effort thus far -– as a content delivery network after the TV business failed to draw large numbers of paying viewers. Overall, only 115 million mobile TV subscribers exist worldwide, according to recent figures from Screen Digest.
And Bitbop faces some unique challenges even for a mobile TV business. The company is hoping to secure carrier-billing relationships but will support only credit card payments at launch, requiring users to walk through the tedious process of establishing accounts either on their phones or a parallel web site. Bitbop may have difficulty hammering out business deals with carriers — particularly AT&T — which struggle to handle data-intense traffic such as mobile video. Plus, at least one major network (CBS) already offers full-length content free via an iPhone app. There’s also questionable demand for full-length TV shows and movies on mobile devices, which is the effort’s primary value proposition.
Bitbop can leverage some interesting advantages, however. Content is modified for each device, Fox Mobile Group EVP Joe Bilman told me, and Fox hits such as “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons” may be especially attractive to users interested in mobile entertainment. And I’ve long argued that a lack of on-demand and downloadable content has been a major hurdle for mobile video, which has largely consisted of streaming programming, which can falter on dodgy mobile connections.
More importantly, Fox is likely to back Bitbop with some serious marketing muscle, using its substantial TV presence to promote the effort to users who may not even be aware mobile TV exists. (It’s unclear, however, why Fox isn’t bringing some version of the News Corp. co-owned Hulu service and brand to mobiles instead of its own, mobile-specific play.) But even brand awareness and Fox marketing may not be enough to move the needle in mobile video. However, if Bitbop is successful there will be no shortage of others looking to duplicate its traction in a very difficult space.
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