November 1, 2007

Viva La Viral: Fat Guy in a Little Coat

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With the astronomical production values on television and the advent of high-definition and widescreen hardware, many of today’s hit shows feel like they would fit right in playing on a movie screen. Nevertheless, hit television programs like The Office, Battlestar Galactica and Lost (with multiple series-inspired fake websites, books and candy bars Lost is the Avian Bird Flu of the viral marketing universe) have looked into producing (or have already produced) spin-off Internet material in the form of short web-based episodes, or “webisodes.” Squeezing the scope of these movie-sized programs into the even smaller screen of a computer conjures an image of Chris Farley’s Fat Guy in a Little Coat routine from ’90s flick Tommy Boy, which is why webisode content is meant only to supplement its television-screen counterpart. Content from our favorite shows is great, and webisodes seem like logical extensions of what might currently be found only on a DVD extra menu, but what’s the deal with watching TV on your phone?
I am referring to, of course, that jet-black haired, trailer-trash sister of the webisode: the “mobisode.” (It is a common misconception that the entertainment industry employs a team of highly-paid infants to come up with their nomenclature. It is just one infant, and he only pulls about five-figures.)
“Mobisodes” are short videos produced and distributed for viewing on one’s cell phone/PDA. Now think of Farley doing his Fat Guy in a Little Coat routine, except that — because you’re watching it on your cell phone — all you can see, in grainy close-up, is one of his titanic breasts flying around as the video struggles to buffer. Despite this horrifying mental imagery, a surprising amount of the television industry wants in on wobisodes (webisode + mobisode; watch your back you drooling little bastard). By and large it is taken for granted that they are the Next Big Thing. Fear of missing the tipping point of digital media makes nay-saying on mobile content kind of like a typhoid fever themed frat party: “Don’t go there, girlfriend.” That said, we are obligated, once again, to recognize that even the sweetest smelling shampoo tastes bitter.
I did some Googling. There are about as many people watching tiny little episodes of television shows on portable devices as you’d think. Not many. “Extreme” multimedia wireless provider Amp’d Mobile (“extreme” as in “Amp’d Mobile: Guaranteed to make you spit your SoBe Adrenaline Rush all over that new snowboard, you pussy!”) filed for bankruptcy this summer. Analysts were shocked that a telephone network catering entirely to the interests of 14 year old boys whose parents have timeshares in Vermont would fail.
Watching video on phones has always been difficult. This difficulty all started back in the 1890s when — as far as I can tell from Wikipedia — telephones didn’t even have screens on them! The video part was also a problem: until about thirty years after the phone was invented the closest you could get to watching a video was to follow a Frenchman down into his basement and watch him wave his sweaty fingers in front of a lantern aimed at a stained tablecloth nailed to the wall. But that’s hardly the worst of it. Even if one could procure a Frenchman to follow them around at all times, the phone was tragically tethered to the telegraph wire. What a truly dark chapter in history. It took about 100 more years for mankind’s fervent prayers to be answered.
So why so little enthusiasm for TV you can take anywhere? A major reason is that wireless companies have positioned themselves as content providers. On top of their voice plans they want to sell media — and on top of that, funny thing, they want to charge for the data they are broadcasting. It is prohibitively expensive for television networks to create their own wireless network providers. Network giant ESPN dropped its bid on a proprietary service last year in favor of providing content to the wireless carriers with networks, and customer bases, already in place. So the mobisode format, for the time being, languishes. It is too expensive, too exclusive and lacking in quantity.
As far as I can tell, the big problem behind the current wireless carriers’ mobisode format is trying to provide expensive content that no one cares about on the tiniest screen imaginable. Some of you might be thinking “But doesn’t the iPhone have a pretty big screen?” The answer is “yes” if you compare it to that original green postage-stamp sized Game Boy screen. And maybe you can get YouTube on your iPhone, but how much damned YouTube can you watch? Not long if you’re interested in preserving even the slightest shred of faith in humanity.
Metaphorically speaking, who’s the fat guy, and who’s the little coat? Only time will tell.

Don’t know what Matt’s talking about? Google it, silly.