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Coming Soon to Tiny Screen Right by You

February 01, 2005|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

The Fox network thriller "24" inspires cult-like devotion by delivering mayhem, suspense and duplicity in every 60-minute episode.

Now, 20th Century Fox Television is trying to squeeze that pulse-pounding formula into a 60-second package -- for cellphones. "24: Conspiracy," an original drama produced solely for the very small screen, will have its U.S. premiere today as part of a mobile video service from Verizon Wireless.

Verizon will charge $15 a month for daily access to about 300 video clips, from 30 seconds to three minutes long. Included in the V Cast package is news from Time Warner Inc.'s CNN and sports from Walt Disney Co.'s ESPN.

For an extra fee, subscribers also can download music videos from Warner Music Group -- in the first attempt to sell what viewers are accustomed to getting for free on TV and the Web -- or video games.

Historically, Americans have been far less willing to spend money on new cellphone services than Europeans and Asians, many of whom have long had access to mobile video.

But there have been hints of a growing U.S. appetite. For example, a service called MobiTV, which delivers TV programming to cellphones, has attracted more than 100,000 subscribers since its launch late in 2003.

Wireless networks were built to carry voices, not videos, which require transmission of far more data. Carriers around the world have been rolling out higher-capacity networks and specialized phones, though, making it possible to deliver video that is smoother and more detailed than could be managed over conventional cellular networks.

Verizon's EV-DO network is the most widely deployed of the top-speed networks -- available in Los Angeles, San Diego and 30 other cities today, with twice as many locales to be covered by year-end. Competitors are expected to roll out comparable networks, with Sprint Corp. and Cingular Wireless already pledging to do so over the next year or two.

The new networks have sparked a frenzy of activity by phone companies, media and entertainment conglomerates, technology firms and would-be middlemen that want to sell programming packages to mobile customers.

For News Corp., the parent of 20th Century Fox Television, the opportunity was irresistible. "There are 1.1 billion television households, and there are 1.3 billion [cellphone] handsets" around the world, said Lucy Hood, a News Corp. senior vice president of content and marketing.

Hood said Fox was approached for ideas last year by both Verizon Wireless and Vodafone Group of England, the world's largest mobile-phone company. After a bit of experimentation on the Fox lot, the company settled on a 60-second version of "24" that would borrow key traits -- plot twists, cliffhanger endings -- from the original. Vodafone made the first episode available to its subscribers in Europe in December.

One measure of the challenge Verizon and its entertainment partners face in the U.S. is the reaction of one "24" buff to the prospect of a cellphone version. "Even if I had a cellphone capable of this, a one-minute episode seems to me to be woefully inadequate as entertainment," said fan Ian J. Ball in an e-mail interview.

News Corp. is producing two other original programs for Verizon's V Cast service: "Sunset Hotel," modeled after a prime-time soap opera, and "Love and Hate," a family drama. Hood wouldn't reveal how much News Corp. was investing in the mini-productions, but Fox television executives said costs were held down by using hand-held video cameras and shooting on location.

The details of the business model are still being ironed out, but Hood said she expected that News Corp. would collect a share of the sales that Verizon generated.

According to Verizon, revenue from all data services doubled in 2004 to more than $1 billion, or nearly 5% of its total sales. That's about the same amount as the company planned to spend rolling out its EV-DO network in 2004 and 2005 combined.

"Our expectation is that video, music, imaging, all of these businesses will be very important to us as we go forward," said John Stratton, vice president and chief marketing officer for Verizon Wireless. "But we're going to learn as we go."

Privately held Warner Music Group has offered mobile music services for a little more than a year, starting on the Sprint network with low-fidelity song samples for $1.33 a month. It upgraded the service to higher fidelity and some full-length songs, raising the price to $3.99 a month.

Now it's adding video to the mix, charging Verizon V Cast subscribers $3.99 to download individual music videos. Initially, the videos will be the same ones people can view for free on TV or the Web, although the company is working on customized versions for the credit-card-sized screen of the new Verizon phones.

"It's interesting to see the way consumers are gravitating toward quality content" on the latest mobile networks, said Michael Nash, senior vice president of Internet strategy and business development for Warner Music.

Analyst Roger Entner of Yankee Group suggested that the $3.99 price tag would weaken the appeal of Warner's videos.

People are willing to spend more money for a variety of mobile offerings, Entner said, but "it all has to be reasonable."

He added, "At $3 for a music video, I don't think a lot will happen."

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Times staff writer Alex Pham contributed to this report.

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