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TV Behind the Wheel

"Dad, are we there yet?”

Road-tripping parents who hear that familiar plaintive wail from the back seat may soon have a wealth of new entertainment options to put in front of the kiddies.

A number of broadcasters, service providers, car manufacturers, automotive-equipment vendors and other companies are working to provide live TV and on-demand programming through in-car entertainment systems.

And why not marry two great national pastimes? Americans spend some 500 million hours per week in their cars, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, and they love TV: Nielsen estimates the average U.S. consumer now watches 141 hours of TV per month.

But there has already been one failed attempt to deliver such a service, AT&T’s CruiseCast, which closed shop last fall. And it’s questionable just how popular the feature will become — not in the least because it is neither safe nor practical for a driver to watch TV while motoring down the interstate.

FLO TV, for one, is driving hard into the automotive space with a service aimed at passengers. The mobile-TV subsidiary of Qualcomm has a deal with Audiovox, which is supplying an in-vehicle entertainment system for FLO’s live-TV service through more than 12,000 new car dealers, including Chrysler outlets. Today, about 23 million vehicles in the U.S. are equipped with entertainment systems that can accommodate the FLO TV Auto Entertainment system, CEO Bill Stone said.

“There are more rear-seat entertainment systems in the U.S. than iPhones,” Stone said. “Adding television, to me, is a natural.”

And millions more TVs are expected to hit the road in the next few years — in front and back seats. About 17.6 million television systems for automobiles will ship in 2015, up from 8.2 million this year, according to market-research firm iSuppli. The forecast encompasses worldwide shipments of mobile-television systems for cars, including embedded solutions and TVs included in portable navigation devices.

Broadcasters have their own mobile-TV push, aimed at mainstream consumers, and they also have great expectations for beaming live programming to cars and trucks. The Open Mobile Video Coalition, which represents more than 800 local TV stations that plan to use the ATSC’s Mobile Digital TV broadcasting standard, has lined up partners including Samsung, LG Electronics and Dell that were showing off devices slated to hit the market this year at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show.

“The automotive industry is definitely highly interested in this,” OMVC executive director Anne Schelle said.

Schelle noted, though, that it will probably be as long as five years before mobile DTV is factory-installed in cars. In the meantime, back-seat passengers will be able to use standalone devices, like LG’s DP570MH mobile digital television with an integrated DVD player.

Having the TV capability built-in will be key, said CNN vice president of mobile Louis Gump. “Anybody can take a phone and prop it up in the passenger seat and the connection is usually OK,” he said. “But actually having a preinstalled device in a car is the way you get mass adoption.”

For CNN, delivering content, applications and alerts to vehicles is as big an opportunity to connect with its audience as video. For example, a service could notify the driver if there’s an accident on the highway up ahead and advise an alternate route or send breaking news alerts to the dashboard.

Video to cars “will be an increasingly important part of a complete product portfolio” for CNN, Gump said.

Promoters of in-car TV say there’s pent-up demand to get television on the go. Of people with kids, 31% would give the mobile TV device to their child to watch in the car, compared with 10% in the home, according to a November 2009 survey of 1,000 adults conducted by Frank N. Magid Associates commissioned by the OMVC.

Already, consumers with video-enabled phones are passing them to the back seat to keep their kids occupied in the car, said MobiTV chief marketing officer Ray DeRenzo. He said one of the highest-rated programs on MobiTV’s video-on-demand service, which is available through Sprint Nextel, AT&T and other carriers, is Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana. MobiTV says than 8 million subscribers have access to the service, which offers more than 35 mobile channels.

“There’s some novelty factor associated with TV in a car, probably,” he said. “But it’s a viable use case that people like to be connected with news, entertainment and information services in the car.”

DirecTV also caters to this market, but its offering is fairly expensive. The operator has a partnership with KVH Industries to offer 185 channels of satellite-TV programming via a rooftop “dome” antenna designed for cars, minivans or SUVs — a system that carries a list price of $3,995.

Still, there has been roadkill on this stretch of highway.

AT&T CruiseCast, which debuted with 22 video channels and 20 music channels last summer, shut down operations in November. The service was operated by RaySat Broadcasting, in partnership with AT&T, and the companies had an agreement with Avis Budget Group to provide the TV service in select rentals. But it was ultimately too expensive to be a mass-market play, with the bulky satellite-based antenna and receiver costing $1,300, not including installation.

“We appreciated the opportunity to serve our customers, and we regret that we were unable to provide the service for a longer period of time,” RaySat said in a statement. The company said it refunded consumers who purchased equipment and paid for the cost of uninstalling it.

With in-car TV, there’s also the question of driver safety. Currently, six states and the District of Columbia ban drivers from using handheld cellphones (California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington), while 19 states now ban text messaging for all drivers. “If the insurance lobby has a hue and cry around mobile texting, I can’t believe for a minute they’ll condone a television screen in the front seat of the vehicle,” MobiTV’s DeRenzo said.

According to FLO TV’s Stone, this is a nonissue because the auto industry currently allows the driver to watch a DVD only if the car is in park. The video won’t display on the driver’s seat screen if the vehicle is moving. “We’re leveraging existing industry practice,” he said.

At CES, FLO TV demonstrated the Audiovox receiver — a small box, about the size of a BlackBerry, that fits under the driver’s seat — in a red Audi A5 convertible.

Audiovox is supplying Chrysler dealers with the first hardware interface that will deliver FLO TV Auto Entertainment to select Chrysler 2010 vehicles and future vehicles with factory-installed DVD entertainment systems, through a dealer-installed option from Mopar. The company is also offering the kit to nearly 2,000 Mobile Electronic Retailers Association outlets nationwide. In addition, Audiovox will market a personal DVD system later this year that is expected to include the FLO TV service.

Stone argued that live TV is better than DVDs — and cheaper, with a monthly fee of about $10 for FLO TV. “One DVD is the cost of one month of our service,” he said. “We’re not targeting the long-haul trucker or the cross-country trip. It’s for the 30-minute trip across town.”

The FLO TV service is currently available in the top 110 U.S. markets through AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless and via a Qualcomm-developed handheld device with a lineup of more than a dozen live channels, including CNBC, ABC Mobile, Disney Channel, Fox Mobile, MTV, NBC2go and Nickelodeon.

Members of the OMVC, meanwhile, have yet to commercially launch services. The group is organizing a customer trial in Washington, D.C., to kick off in March with up to 20 channels including NBC, Fox, CBS, ION, Univision and PBS (WHUT-DT). Among the devices in the test will be 300 Dell netbooks outfitted with Mobile DTV receivers, and Samsung’s phone for Sprint with an embedded Mobile DTV chip.

The Mobile DTV initiative is not exclusively for broadcasters, Schelle added. Cable programmers are interested in delivering pay-TV services over Mobile DTV spectrum as well. “It’s the promise of the capabilities around this platform. It’s different from the living room,” she said.

Another way video may someday be delivered to cars is over broadband wireless connections, like WiMAX or Long Term Evolution.

At the 2010 CES, Alcatel-Lucent showed off the prototype of a Toyota Prius equipped with a LTE wireless broadband connection that provides a slew of entertainment and information services — including video-on-demand, piped into the rear-seat headrests. According to Alcatel-Lucent, 22% of consumers surveyed would be willing to pay $30 to $65 per month for broadband service in their car.

“A lot of it is the 'wow’ factor of high-definition streaming video into the car,” Alcatel-Lucent vice president of emerging media and technology Derek Kuhn said.

The company has found in its primary consumer research that people want access to television content and not just movies on DVD, especially for longer trips.

“My guess is, they want the variety,” Kuhn said. Furthermore, a broadband connection to the car allows passengers to watch different programs: “My 7-year-old wants Transformers, but that’s not appropriate for the 2-year-old.”

Location, Location
Where people would most want to watch mobile TV programs:

SOURCE: Frank N. Magid Associates survey for Open Mobile Video Coalition