Failure to communicate: Promoting mobile television in the United States Max Dawson Department of Radio, TV, & Film Northwestern University

1920 Campus Drive Annie May Swift Hall Room 213 Evanston, IL 60208 Fax: 847-467-2389


Failure to communicate: Promoting mobile television in the United States

Abstract: Services that transmit television programming and other video content to mobile phones over wireless networks have struggled to gain a foothold in the United States despite having achieved widespread popularity overseas. Between 2006 and 2010 a number of high-profile U.S. mobile television ventures suspended their services due to low subscriber numbers, compelling telecommunications analysts to label U.S. mobile television as a “failure.” This essay explores mobile television’s launch and subsequent designation as a failure in the U.S. market, focusing on the promotional texts that introduced this new medium to U.S. consumers. In the process, it raises broader historiographic questions about the study of failed media technologies.

Keywords: mobile television, new media, advertising, technology, failure, gender, history

Media historians have gained valuable insights into the processes by which new media technologies are launched and adopted by examining the promotional materials that announce their introductions. Studies of advertisements, press

3 releases, brochures, and point-of-purchase sales materials underscore that these and various other kinds of ephemeral promotional materials do much more than simply proclaim the desirability of the devices they promote. Even more significantly, the images and narratives they contain can influence subsequent negotiations between producers, consumers, and various intermediaries over such matters as the content, uses, regulation, and cultural meanings of new media technologies. Under most circumstances these negotiations commence well before the majority of their participants have had opportunities to experience the technologies they concern in person. In fact, in many instances positions within these negotiations are based primarily, if not exclusively, upon encounters with representations of these technologies that circulate in advertisements and other promotional materials. Of course, not every new media technology that is launched to great fanfare is adopted by consumers. Time and time again devices that were subjects of extensive promotional campaigns have failed to make substantial or lasting impacts in the marketplace. These “failed” media technologies are deserving of the attention of media historians, as the stories of their unsuccessful launches complicate the narratives of progress that so often dominate popular discussions of media change. But piecing together these stories presents its own set of challenges. Companies that bankroll the commercialization of widelyadopted media technologies to meticulously document (and enthusiastically mythologize) their triumphs in press releases, annual reports, corporate histories,

4 and websites. By contrast, the backers of commercially unsuccessful media technologies are rarely eager to publicize their missteps. Accounts of failures are frequently absent from (or downplayed within) “official” histories, and for many of the same reasons may be underrepresented within public archives as well. As a consequence, primary and secondary documents pertaining to the invention, development, and/or commercialization of failed media technologies are also frequently in short supply. In the absence of these forms of documentation, promotional texts may provide historians with our primary sources of access to information about those media technologies that have been designated as failures. Certainly there is no shortage of these ephemeral texts for historians to draw on: advertisements and other promotional materials in many instances survive long after the products depicted within them are withdrawn from the market and consigned to history’s landfill. But what kinds of historical insights are to be gained by examining the promotion of failed media technologies? For instance, can studying the advertisements that launched a new media technology that was later designated a failure lead us to a better understanding of why it was designated as such? What can advertisements and other promotional materials tell us about the consumers who rejected or ignored this technology? What can they tell us about the culture into which this technology was launched? To address these questions, this essay explores the promotion of a new media technology that in recent years has struggled to gain a foothold in the

5 United States: mobile television. Since 2003 global media and telecommunications companies and a host of small startups have launched a number of services that transmit television and other forms of video programming to mobile phone handsets and other portable devices via wireless networks.1 In the U.S. the launches of these mobile television services was accompanied by extensive PR blitzes. By 2006, mobile television was generating an extraordinary amount of buzz in the mainstream media and the specialized trade presses of various media and telecommunications industry sectors. After mobile television services took center stage at that year’s CTIA (Cellular Telephone Industries Association) trade show, telecommunications analysts predicted that television and video services would “galvanize” a global mobile entertainment market that by 2011 would be generating upwards of $77 billion in revenues (Cheng, 2006; Fierce Mobile Content, 2006). “Mobile television burst onto the radar screens of carriers, content providers and a few marketers in 2005,” the website CellularNews reported in March of 2006. “A year later, it’s clear that something major is going to happen with mobile TV, and sooner rather than later” (Cellular-News, 2006). Despite attracting volumes of positive press and the backing of some of the biggest names in the media and telecommunications sectors, from early on the new U.S. mobile television ventures experienced great difficulties in signing up subscribers.2 Before long, low subscriber numbers plunged U.S. mobile television ventures into crises from which many would not recover. The first

6 major casualty was Mobile ESPN, a full-service wireless company that enjoyed the patronage of Walt Disney Co.’s lucrative cable sports network. Mobile ESPN announced its 2006 launch with a $30 million advertising campaign, including a special-effects laden commercial that aired during the most-watched U.S. television broadcast of the year, the Super Bowl (System Mobile, 2007). Seven months later ESPN pulled the plug on its mobile service, having attracted only 30,000 subscribers (Lowry, 2006).3 Next to fall was Amp’d Mobile, a youthoriented mobile multimedia service backed by MTV Networks, Universal Music Group, and hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. Amp’d Mobile’s June 2007 bankruptcy filing came less than two years after the service’s inception, during which the company had accumulated more than $100 million in debt (Marshall, 2007; Riley, 2007). More recently, Qualcomm announced that it was ceasing direct-to-consumer sales of its FLO TV mobile television service, which the company had developed at a cost of more than $800 million (Murph, 2010). Qualcomm’s announcement came as little surprise to industry analysts: in three years of operations Qualcomm managed to sign up only 200,000 subscribers, far fewer than was necessary for the FLO TV service to achieve profitability (Walsh, 2010). Chastened by these turns of events, telecommunications industry analysts reversed their projections of mobile television’s prospects in the U.S. As early as 2007 consensus was building behind the notion that mobile television was “overhyped,” a “disappointment,” or even a “failure” (Tan, 2007; Santo, 2010;

7 Andrews, 2008). As one analyst summed up the situation, mobile television’s “press releases outnumber [its] viewers” (Higginbotham, 2008). Certainly, there was ample cause for this dramatic reversal. Still, the designation of U.S. mobile television as a “failure” requires qualification, especially in light of mobile television’s performance in overseas markets. Mobile television services similar to the ones that have floundered in the U.S. have elsewhere proven phenomenally successful. In South Korea, for instance, mobile television services have garnered sizeable audiences. In Japan, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Russia, Nigeria, Thailand, Egypt, and China viewership of mobile television is growing as well, leaving the U.S. (along with Europe) as one of few remaining regions where mobile television adoption has failed to meet its backers’ projections (O’Brien, 2010). That mobile television services similar to the ones that have struggled to gain traction in the U.S. should succeed at attracting audiences overseas hardly comes as a surprise given U.S. consumers’ tendency to lag behind their counterparts in most other nations when it comes to the adoption of mobile data services (Kedrowsky, 2006). But rather than contradict the chorus of voices that has called mobile television a failure, mobile television’s uneven global diffusion underscores that designations of media technologies as failures (and successes, for that matter) are always context-bound. As Frank Lipartito (2003) argues in his study of AT&T’s attempts to launch its Picturephone video telephony service in the 1970s, there are no set criteria that, when met, justify the designation of a

8 technology as a success or failure. Instead, he writes, “what constitutes success or failure is more a matter of social values and expectations than performance or function” (54). A media technology such as mobile television may fail because it does not “work” correctly – in other words, because it does not adequately perform the job(s) it has been designed to do. It also may fail because it is prohibitively expensive, or because it lacks ample and appropriate content. Far more frequently, however, media technologies fail because they prove incompatible with consumers’ values and/or expectations. These values and expectations are formed in relation to “contingent social conditions” – for example, the economic climates or cultural traditions that exist within specific national markets, or the patterns of communication, thought, or social organization associated with other, older media technologies (52). Accordingly, a technology deemed a success in one market may simultaneously be written off as a failure in another, as both designations are social constructs embedded within specific cultural, historical, and technological contexts. The telecommunications industry analysts who have designated U.S. mobile television a failure have for the most part based their conclusions on numerical indexes – for instance, on subscriber numbers, handset sales figures, or quarterly revenue reports. These numbers support analysts’ contentions that the U.S. mobile television industry has experienced extraordinary turbulence in its relatively brief existence, but offer little insight into why. In this essay, I approach the sense of disappointment surrounding U.S. mobile television from a

9 different perspective, focusing, on the one hand, on representations of this new medium in promotional materials and, on the other hand, on the contexts in which these representations circulated and were consumed. I do so not to dispute analysts’ designations of mobile television as a failure, but rather in the interest of resituating the abstract financial data on which these designations are based within cultural, historical, and technological contexts. Informed by Lipartito’s definition of failure as “a matter of social values and expectations” (2003, p. 54), in the following sections I turn my attention to the venue where consumers’ values and expectations were either met or disappointed by mobile television: that is, the promotional materials that were many consumers’ primary (if not sole) source of information about and access to this new medium in this period. The emphasis I place on these texts and the representations they contain reflects my contention that the launch of a new media technology is akin to an act of communication between its producers and/or promoters and its prospective users. Simply put, producers and/or promoters attempt to create and convey representations of a new media technology that will captivate consumers and, if all goes according to plan, compel them to adopt it. Within the context of these acts of communication advertisements and other promotional materials convey messages between senders and recipients, but also groom and organize the meanings of the representations these messages contain. Representations of a new media technology such as mobile television may have many relevant points

10 of reference, including established promotional tropes, longstanding cultural fantasies, historical memories, or established media technologies. Ultimately, it falls to promotional materials (and the larger campaigns to which they belong) to tease these disparate points of reference into coherence, and to make the representations they contain resonate with consumers’ values and expectations. The case of the U.S. launch of mobile television services is indicative of what may occur when these acts of communication are somewhat less than successful. For while the meanings advertisements and other promotional materials attached to mobile television technologies in the U.S. in the mid-2000s were consistent and unambiguous, they were nonetheless consistently and unambiguously alienating. Mobile television’s promotional materials were narrow in their address, and even narrower in their conception of this new medium’s uses. The tropes they referenced excluded large portions of the audience from taking part in the fantasies they depicted, and wrapped the emergent medium of mobile television within residual ideologies associated with mobile television’s technological antecedents. Exploring these promotional materials helps us to better understand the conditions surrounding mobile television’s launch, marketplace tribulations, and subsequent designation as a failed media technology in the U.S. Beyond that, an engagement with these materials also helps us to understand failure in a more general sense as a matter of communication – that is, as a failure on the part of a new medium’s backers to create and convey meanings that resonate with consumers’ values and

11 expectations.

“Change out of that skirt”: Masculinity, mobility, and television Mobile ESPN announced its launch in February 2006 with a minute-long commercial that aired during television coverage of Super Bowl XL. Four years later, mobile television made its return to the big game, this time under slightly less auspicious circumstances. In 2010 Qualcomm spent a rumored $10 million to produce and air three commercials for its FLO TV system during CBS’s coverage of Super Bowl XLIV. Mobile ESPN’s Super Bowl debut had come at the height of the U.S. telecommunications industry’s mobile television fever, at a time when billion-dollar revenues seemed well within reach (Kharif, 2004). By February 2010, however, attitudes within the telecommunications and media sectors towards mobile television had cooled considerably. Analysts in both sectors questioned whether mobile television in fact had a future in the U.S., holding up ESPN’s failed mobile television venture as a cautionary tale. In this climate, Qualcomm’s multi-million dollar Super Bowl commercials came across as somewhat of a “Hail Mary” play – that is, a pass thrown out of desperation as the clock ticks down on the final seconds of an American football game (Duryee, 2010). Like most Hail Mary passes, Qualcomm’s commercials failed to connect with their intended recipients. Within nine months, Qualcomm would announce

12 that it was discontinuing FLO TV sales (Tartakoff and Kramer, 2010). But if unsuccessful at drumming up interest in mobile television, Qualcomm’s Super Bowl commercials did manage to succeed at crystallizing themes that have surfaced repeatedly in mobile television’s promotional materials. In the period between 2003, when the first U.S. mobile television services launched, and 2010, when Qualcomm’s trio of commercials aired, mobile television’s backers developed and refined a repertoire of stock narratives for representing the medium, its uses, and its users in promotional contexts. A significant number of these stock narratives placed mobile television at the center of gendered conflicts over space, leisure, and consumption. One Qualcomm commercial, for instance, staged these conflicts within a shopping mall. In this spot, entitled “Injury Report,” National Football League television commentator Jim Nance provides a “play-byplay” account of a poorly timed trip to a department store. The commercial begins with Nance delivering an “injury report” on Jason Glasby, a twentysomething young man who has accompanied his girlfriend to the mall. “As you can see,” Nance explains in his classic announcer’s baritone, “his girlfriend has removed his spine, rendering him incapable of watching the game.” Following Nance’s introduction Jason is subjected to a series of emasculating retail experiences. First, he is made to hold his girlfriend’s shopping bags as she rifles through racks of undergarments. Next, she drags him away from the electronics department, where he has managed to steal a glance at a football game, and to the housewares department where she has him sniff an assortment of scented

13 candles. As if these indignities are not bad enough, throughout the commercial a red brassiere remains draped over Jason’s right shoulder. Comments Nance: “Boy, that’s hard to watch.” FIGURES 1 and 2 As is to be expected, “Injury Report” offers as a solution to Jason Glasby’s dilemma a FLO TV personal television receiver that, as Nance explains, will allow him to watch the game anywhere, including in what is perhaps the most feminized of all retail spaces, the department store. But in this scenario mobile television offers far more than just the convenience of watching television on the go. It simultaneously promises Jason a means of recuperating his damaged manhood: in the commercial’s closing seconds, Nance implores Jason to get a FLO TV subscription and “Change out of that skirt.” In fact, “Injury Report” is concerned almost exclusively with Jason’s remasculation. Like many other mobile television advertisements from this period, it races over a cursory description of FLO TV’s technical features, and makes no mention of the types of content available to the service’s subscribers, focusing instead on the decidedly masculine pleasures mobile television delivers to its audiences. Though noteworthy for its unabashed misogyny, “Injury Report” was far from the only mobile television advertisement to place the new medium at the crux of conflicts between men and women over spectatorship and consumption. More often than not, these conflicts centered on the ability to watch live televised coverage of sporting events. For instance, a 2007 Nokia print advertisement shows a couple enjoying what appears to be a romantic dinner above the slogan

14 “A connection can happen anywhere.” The woman in the advertisement has reached across the table to hold hands, but her date’s attention is focused on the ballgame playing on a small screen he has hidden just beneath the table’s surface. A television commercial for Slingbox depicts a similar scenario. In this advertisement, a man on a dinner date pretends he is receiving an important call from work so that he can steal away to watch the final inning of a baseball game on his mobile phone. In each of these advertisements, watching mobile television is portrayed as akin to an act of defiance whereby men mount passiveaggressive resistance to women’s encroachments upon their leisure time. As is the case in “Injury Report,” mobile television factors in Nokia’s and Slingbox’s advertisements as a weapon within gendered conflicts over space and time. In depicting these conflicts, mobile television’s promotional materials drew on and extended a set of discursive conventions for representing television viewing and viewers outside the home that have their origins in television’s own postwar period of novelty. During this period, as Cecilia Tichi (1991) notes, the “physical inertia” of the male television viewer emerged as a major source of anxiety in the U.S. (89). According to Tichi, postwar leisure reformers, social theorists, and pundits came to regard the sedentarism of the nation’s male television viewers as an affront to (masculinist) leisure ideologies that equated physical activity with economic productivity, good citizenship, and moral hygiene. In books, magazine articles, and lectures television’s critics linked the diminishing fitness of male viewers’ bodies to the overall fitness of the body politic, making

15 sedentarism a matter of national concern. Television’s critics accused the medium of immobilizing and emasculating the nation’s male population (Tichi 1991, p. 90), and of transforming “‘real men’ into passive homebodies” content to watch the world go by on their television screens (Spigel 1992, 61). Over the course of subsequent decades television manufacturers addressed the anxieties surrounding the medium’s sedentary male viewers in a wide variety of promotional materials, and in particular in advertisements for portable television receivers. Advertisements for the transistorized receivers introduced in the 1960s tackled these concerns by emphasizing television’s portability, and portrayed viewers watching television out of doors, where they combined the virtual experiences of mobility that television afforded its audiences with the excitement and adventure of travel and tourism. Inverting Raymond Williams’ term “mobile privatization,” Lynn Spigel (2001) coins the term “privatized mobility” to describe the fantasies of mediated mobility that became prominent in the advertisements of this period (71).4 In many of these advertisements, portable televisions liberated male viewers from their domestic incarceration at the hands of television, literally freeing them from the confines of the feminine sphere of the home. Portable receivers became symbols of “potent masculinity” in the promotional materials of this period, as is demonstrated by one 1960 RCA advertisement that depicted a procession of well-dressed men carrying television sets with them as they engaged in a range of appropriately masculine work and leisure activities (Spigel, 2001, pp. 80-1).

16 Television technologies have come a long way since the 1960s, when transistors were the state of the art and a 19” receiver still qualified as “portable.” Nevertheless, the promotional discourses used to sell portable television technologies have in many ways remained consistent over this span. Much as television receiver manufacturers did in the 1960s, the mobile television services that inaugurated their operations in the mid-2000s promised male consumers a means of watching television outside their homes, but also of recuperating compromised bodies and masculinities. In “Injury Report,” the abject figure of the lazy homebody that haunted 1960s advertisements for portable television receivers gives way to that of Jason Glasby sheepishly trudging through a department store on Super Bowl Sunday. In advertisements such as this one, mobile television allowed Glasby and other similarly “spineless” men to “take off their skirts” and assert their masculinity via conspicuous (and conspicuously defiant) public displays of spectatorship. In this particular case, mobile television enables Jason Glasby to reinstate what the commercial portrays as the rightful balance of power between himself and his domineering girlfriend. Equally importantly, it allows him to appropriate a feminine public retail space for masculine spectatorial pleasures. “Injury Report,” like many of its contemporaries, is a miniature revenge narrative, in which mobile television allows an aggrieved middle class white man to assert gender- and class-based prerogatives. Though eager to hype the unique and unprecedented capabilities of their

17 technologies and services, in advertisements such as “Injury Report” mobile television’s backers fell back on well-tread discursive conventions to define the meanings of the new medium of mobile television primarily in relation to spatial problematics inherited from the promotion of earlier television technologies. Mobile television may have been a new medium, but within the context of these promotional materials it was saddled with the ideological baggage of decades worth of advertisements for media technologies. Granted, these spatial problematics underwent processes of updating and recontextualization as they were restaged within mobile television’s promotional materials. Thus, for instance, in “Injury Report” Jason Glasby’s problem is not that television has rendered him immobile, but that his mobility is involuntary, and controlled by his girlfriend. Mobility here comes at a cost, that being that the mobile man is prevented from indulging in the spectatorial pleasures he enjoys while at home. The mobile television receiver stands in this and many other contemporaneous advertisements as an instrument of voluntary mobility, but also as a symbol of the possibility of recreating the most desirable aspects of the domestic television experience in non-domestic locations – namely, the feelings of control, omniscience, and connectivity that the television viewer experiences at home in front of his set. In these updated fantasies of privatized mobility, the bus, the train, the city street, and the shopping mall became extensions of the living room entertainment center, presumably the place where the Jason Glasbys of the world felt most powerful and at ease.

18 Mobile television’s promotional texts modified decades-old fantasies of privatized mobility, in part to reflect the technological capabilities of handheld devices that made possible instantaneous, on-demand access to the full range of media platforms that comprised the home entertainment center of the mid-2000s. For the most part, however, these updates were superficial. Despite displaying a pronounced preoccupation with technological progress, the fantasies of privatized mobility narrated by mobile television’s promotional materials were politically retrograde, at least in comparison with their antecedents. 1960s advertisements for portable television receivers had frequently appropriated the rhetoric and iconography of the women’s liberation movement to sell transistorized sets, with many featuring images of “modern” women using portable televisions within the context of active consumer lifestyles that took them outside of their homes and allowed them to step outside of conventional gender roles (Spigel, 2001, pp. 76-80). These appropriations might have been opportunistic and exploitative, yet they nonetheless recognized and valued the mobilities of women in ways that later advertisements for mobile television services seldom did. Mobile television’s promotional materials portrayed mobility (and mobile spectatorship) as the exclusive prerogative of men, and of white twentysomething middle class men in particular. In these scenarios, voluntary mobility was often conceptualized as a zero sum game; hence in “Injury Report” Jason’s crisis of mobility (and masculinity) arises as a result of the unchecked mobility of his acquisitive girlfriend. “Injury Report”’s misogynistic depiction of the

19 mobile consumer lifestyle of Jason’s girlfriend is telling. Even more telling is the fact that this commercial is one of the few mobile television advertisements that depicted a woman engaged in voluntary and pleasurable forms of mobility and consumption. Far more frequently, as I discuss below, women were absent from mobile television’s promotional materials, or else appeared only as functionally inert elements of urban landscapes that existed chiefly for the consumption of men who had “changed out of their skirts.” The folly of struggling mobile television companies ignoring over half of their potential market should be self-evident. Women in the U.S. are avid mobile phone users, and comprise an important growth market for smartphones and mobile data services (Nielsen Wire, 2009). Mobile television companies essentially left this potentially lucrative market on the table in their single-minded pursuit of America’s Jason Glasbys. Well before Qualcomm’s Super Bowl commercials aired analysts had already begun to express their concerns about the long-term viability of this strategy of segmenting mobile television’s audience by gender. For instance, in 2005 the branding consultancy Third Way criticized Amp’d Mobile for a commercial targeted at young male early-adopters that featured a prostitute banging on the chest of a dead John (Mallo 2005). Given the difficulties that Amp’d Mobile, Qualcomm, Mobile ESPN, and many of their competitors experienced in attracting subscribers in this period, it seems wholly reasonable to question the logic behind these companies’ misogynistic promotional campaigns. Granted, young men are the population that is most

20 frequently targeted by the promoters of new media technologies. In this respect, U.S. mobile television services’ promotional materials have as much to say about a consumer economy that invests disproportionately in the cultivation of young men’s discretionary spending habits as they do about the fledgling mobile television sector. Even so, mobile television services went to extraordinary lengths to hone in on this population in their promotional campaigns, with the consequence that in many instances their promotional texts seemed as if they had been expressly designed to exclude and even offend anyone who did not fall within this narrow demographic profile.

The Power to entertain yourself: Mobile television, privatization, and possessive spectatorship “Injury Report” concludes before Jason Glasby has had a chance to demonstrate mobile television’s uses and features for the audience. Far more frequently, mobile television advertisements from this period picked up where “Injury Report” left off, depicting mobile male viewers’ victories in zero-sum contests over control of public spaces of leisure and consumption. Many of these advertisements featured their own versions of Qualcomm’s Jason Glasby character using mobile television devices to claim public spaces for their own spectatorial pleasures. The mobile viewers who populated these advertisements were carefree consumers of texts, spaces, and people, all of which blended together on the liquid crystal displays of their mobile devices. They were modern-day avatars of what Eric

21 Gordon (2010) terms “possessive spectatorship,” or the “cultural impulse to collect, control, and assemble the experience of the city” through the use of media technologies (20). Mobile television’s promotional materials narrated this impulse to “possess” the city in more or less literal ways, inviting consumers to imagine using mobile television to transform their surroundings into privatized spaces of spectatorship, but also to imagine consuming these surroundings and their inhabitants as they might viral videos or streaming television feeds. As noted above, these invitations were not extended to all consumers. Rather, possessive spectatorship was monopolized in mobile television’s promotional materials by a succession of Jason Glasby types, young white males who satisfied their impulses to collect, control, and assemble their experiences of urban environments at the expense of their inhabitants. Perhaps the most literal illustration of mobile television’s reworking of this impulse of possessive spectatorship is a 2006 commercial for Nokia’s N-Series mobile television-equipped handset. The commercial, which circulated on the web, employs tromp l’œil special effects to convey the manner in which the multimedia cell phone reduces the urban landscape to a much more intimate and manageable scale. It begins with a quick montage of shots of a city at dusk, establishing its verticality and vastness, before transitioning to a sequence of shots of a smartly dressed young man traversing its streets. The man spots a phone booth, which he lifts off the ground and places in his bag. His motions are accompanied by a sudden shift in scale that reduces the phone booth to the size

22 of a dollhouse miniature. The man continues to accumulate pieces of his surroundings in this fashion, collecting items that represent the multiple functions of his Nokia mobile phone, including a billboard (photography) and the neon sign of a jazz club (music). Finally, he comes across a billboard-sized television screen, which he plucks from the top of the building on which it has been mounted. In the palm of his hand, the screen appears no larger than a mobile phone. As the scaffolding that had formerly held the screen in place buckles and explodes, the camera swivels 360 degrees. Once this revolution has concluded, it is revealed that the giant-screen television has morphed into a Nokia phone. With each of its tromp l’œil sequences Nokia’s advertisement restages the city’s transformation from an intimidating to an intimate environment via shifts of scale that miniaturize it and enable its possession. Miniaturization, in the words of Margaret Morse, is “a process of interiorization, enclosure, and perfection” that reduces the incomprehensibly vast to a more intimate and manageable scale. Morse identifies this process as being at play in television, automobile culture, shopping malls, and consumer capitalism itself, each of which “expands the personal … [transforming] action into exchange, nature into marketplace, history into collection and property” (1990, p. 201). Miniaturization is thus a form of privatization, not unlike that carried out by the individual who uses a Walkman, iPod, or handheld gaming device to carve out and inhabit “‘media saturated’ spaces of intimacy” within shared public spaces (Bull, 2004, 278). In these scenarios, portable media devices supply their users with means of creating

23 private audiovisual bubbles around themselves, and therefore of insulating and absenting themselves from their immediate surroundings. By contrast, in Nokia’s advertisement the mobile phone transforms the city itself into one of these “‘media saturated’ spaces of intimacy.” The private audiovisual bubble and the city become one and the same, rendering the urban environment a space where and that the mobile viewer subject may safely, comfortably, and pleasurably consume. The privatized urban environments depicted within mobile television advertisements were frequently populated with individuals who appeared to exist solely for the entertainment of the mobile male viewer. For instance, in Mobile ESPN’s aforementioned 2006 Super Bowl commercial a man walks through a downtown business district that is overrun with athletes who perform a variety of spectacular physical feats. In a series of commercials for Verizon’s Real TV mobile television becomes a conversation starter that allows a young man to interact with the people he encounters on while traversing city streets. One installment of this series shows the mobile viewer amazed to learn that a gumpopping frosted blonde bimbo can intelligently discuss his phone’s “seamless broadcast quality TV with no buffering or downloading.” In another installment, the same man finds common ground with a coarse and garrulous hot dog vendor over their shared appreciation of the ability to channel surf on his phone. Despite the face-to-face nature of these interactions, they are by no means reciprocal. Instead, they take place at the mobile viewer’s behest, and within own personal

24 audiovisual bubble. Like voice calls and text messages, these interactions occur through the mobile device’s interface, a frictionless environment within which the mobile viewer is insulated from the tensions, conflicts, or compromises that characterize urban life. Within this environment, the mobile male’s interlocutors are reduced to amusing types whose difference is a source of curiosity that is always entertaining but never threatening. The social dynamic at the heart of these hybridized fantasies of privatized mobility and possessive spectatorship was perhaps most clearly (and disturbingly) revealed by an advertisement for the Amp’d Mobile wireless network. As noted above, during its brief period of solvency Amp’d Mobile went to great lengths to cultivate an edgy brand image. A major component of this branding strategy was a series advertisements that encouraged the company’s target market (men between the ages of 18 and 24) to imagine using their mobile phones to control the people and environments they encountered in their everyday travels. In one such advertisement, set onboard a city bus, yet another young white male begins issuing orders to his fellow passengers in a flat, affectless tone. First, he commands an elderly man and an African-American man to fight, and they immediately spring out of their seats and begin pummeling each other. Then, he instructs a man in mechanic’s coveralls to turn up his radio, and an African-American woman to “shake your junk,” at which point she performs a perfunctory pole dance on one of the bus’s hand rails. Finally, the man tells the bus driver to hit the brakes. The commercial ends with the bus’s

25 passengers flying in all directions, and the slogan “Have the Power to Entertain Yourself” superimposed over the screen (Dawson 2007). If Verizon’s campaign presents the mobile phone as an interface through which the male, middle class urban adventurer can decode (and accommodate) sex or class difference, in Amp’d’s campaign it becomes a remote control that allows this figure to collect, sequence, and consume the people he encounters in his travels like any other form of digital content. In addition to resonating with Nokia’s and Verizon’s depictions of mobile television as an instrument of possessive spectatorship, Amp’d Mobile’s advertisement also evokes Bumfights, the notorious series of exploitation videos in which homeless people fight or perform dangerous stunts on tape. Like Bumfights, this advertisement equates the “power to entertain yourself” with the power to use digital video technology to endanger and humiliate anonymous urban subalterns. Only whereas Bumfights’ producers plied homeless people with cash, alcohol, and crack cocaine in order to get them to appear on camera, in Amp’d Mobile’s advertisement the city’s inhabitants are imagined to be fully obedient and acquiescent to the mobile viewer’s will. Amp’d Mobile’s urban traveller does not use technology to withdraw from his surroundings. Rather, via the act of watching television in public spaces he experiences these spaces as fully privatized, and their inhabitants as performers in dramas that unfold for an audience of one on the tiny LCD screen of his mobile phone.5 Within advertisements such as this one, mobile television’s uses and

26 cultural meanings could not possibly have been clearer. Mobile television bestowed upon its viewer the ability to transform even the most inhospitable of public environments into a site of privatized spectatorship and consumption where he could enjoy the same feelings of power, omniscience, connectivity, and control he experienced at home in front of his television set. Mobile television thus functioned a potent weapon in conflicts over control of the shared spaces of everyday life. Curiously, mobile television’s backers promoted this weapon to a population of consumers who needed it the least. The pleasurable forms of mobility depicted within these advertisements have in the West at least traditionally been a privilege monopolized by men. As Janet Wolff (1993) suggests, experiences of voluntary mobility bear an intrinsic (though by no means essential) relationship to “constructed masculine identity” (230). For those who are already at liberty to indulge their wanderlust, the fantasies of privatized mobility and possessive spectatorship these advertisements narrated would have hardly seemed fantastic. Rather, mobile television’s promotional materials reflected their privileged audience’s social and economic status back to them via redundant displays of technologically enhanced spatial dominion. There is some small satisfaction to be taken from the fact that mobile television’s target market of young male early adopters responded with indifference to the entreaties of companies that, like Amp’d Mobile, stooped to such blatant sexism, classism, and racism to promote their services. But what of the many millions who could not (or preferred not) to identify with the privileged

27 men who were the subjects of these promotional materials’ address? In their determined pursuit of the early adopter market mobile television’s promotional texts all but barred women, people of color, and working class people from participating in the fantasies of privatized mobility and possessive spectatorship they depicted. However, they could not prevent members of these same groups from interpreting these fantasies through their own experiences of encountering television, mobile phones, and other media technologies in shared public spaces. As Anna McCarthy (2001) has noted, on a daily basis women, people of color, and working class people are exposed to various forms of out-of-home media that do not address them as mobile and autonomous consumers, but as members of captive audiences. These encounters are frequently characterized by monotony instead of novelty, and feelings of powerlessness instead of omnipotent control. For individuals for whom mobility is not necessarily a discretionary declaration of consumer sovereignty or masculine agency, but rather is linked to economic necessity, the conflicts narrated by advertisements such as the ones discussed above likely would have triggered associations with these very sorts of indignities. For instance, Amp’d Mobile’s “The Power to Entertain Yourself” commercial might have evoked recollections of sharing a bus ride home after a long day of work with an inconsiderate young urban professional who thought nothing of subjecting his fellow passengers to ribald tales about his nightlife as he talked loudly on his mobile phone. Along similar lines, Nokia’s trompe l’oeil special effects might have reminded some urban

28 dwellers of their own experiences of the very real (as opposed to metaphorical) processes of privatization associated with gentrification. For reasons that will likely remain obscure, advertisements for mobile television services appear to have left their target market of young male early adopters cold. In all likelihood, these same advertisements went a long way towards persuading people who did not fit this consumer profile that mobile television was certainly not for them, and moreover quite possibly was a weapon to be used against them in conflicts over the shopping mall, the city street, and public transportation. Herein lies what was arguably one of the most damaging missteps made by mobile television’s backers during the period of the medium’s U.S. launch. For while Amp’d Mobile, Mobile ESPN, Qualcomm, and their competitors for the most did quite admirable jobs of rapidly assembling infrastructure and content for their systems, their promotional materials rarely touted these accomplishments. Rather, mobile television’s backers used their promotional campaigns to define the new medium of mobile television as a weapon in a zero-sum game that, at least according to their advertisements, would inevitably be won by the Jason Glasbys of the world. By foregrounding these conflicts, mobile television’s backers placed artificial and arbitrary limits on the size of the new medium’s potential market. Under the constraints of these limits mobile television has struggled unsuccessfully to break out of the early adopter ghetto that its U.S. backers fought so hard to gain a foothold within. As a result, after more than seven years U.S. mobile television services have only

29 ever managed to attract a small and demographically-homogenous base of subscribers (Mobiledia, 2007).

Conclusion Certainly, promotional materials are not exclusively to blame for mobile television’s troubles in the U.S. Indeed, a much broader range of factors contributed to the failures of the mobile television ventures whose advertisements I have discussed in this essay’s preceding pages. Mobile ESPN, Amp’d Mobile, and FLO TV were all brought down by unique confluences of events falling both within and beyond these companies’ control. In the case of Amp’d Mobile, for instance, particularly damaging was the company’s policy of allowing people with poor credit ratings to sign up for its services. After many of these subscribers did not pay their monthly bills, Amp’d Mobile was plunged into a liquidity crisis that prevented it from paying off its own creditors, and that ultimately brought on its demise. By the time Amp’d Mobile filed for bankruptcy in 2007, the service had only about 175,000 total subscribers, 80,0000 of whom were delinquent on their bills (Marshall, 2007; Rosenthal, 2007). Amp’d Mobile’s credit crisis illustrates the devastating effects that something as seemingly inconsequential as a subscriber credit check policy can have on a new media venture’s prospects for success. Then again, perhaps Amp’d Mobile would not have been compelled to extend credit to risky cases had it been more successful at signing up subscribers in the first place. The question

30 remains, then: “Why did so few people sign up for Amp’d Mobile and the other mobile television services launched in this period?” Over the course of this essay I have argued that an engagement with the promotional materials that accompanied the launch of mobile television services in the U.S. can be an important first step towards answering this question. Far greater numbers of people encountered mobile television’s promotional materials than had chances to experience its technologies or content first hand. These consumers did not reject mobile television so much as they rejected a particular definition of its meanings. Understanding mobile television’s failure in the U.S. thus requires that we first consider the processes by which these meanings were made, the channels through which they circulated, and the values and expectations that shaped how adopters and non-adopters interpreted them. This prescription, I believe, may be generalized to the many other instances in which consumers have rejected – or even merely responded with indifference to – new media technologies that were extensively promoted by their backers. Launching a new media technology involves engineering hardware, designing interfaces, building out infrastructure, procuring content, constructing manufacturing facilities, and establishing retail distribution networks. But it also involves telling stories and making meanings. Though a breakdown at any of these stages may result in a media technology’s designation as a failure, it is these acts of communication that are most vulnerable, as they alone involve consumers directly. Studying the unsuccessful promotion of failed media technologies brings

31 these vulnerabilities into relief, demonstrating the precariousness that characterizes the launch of every new media technology. To return to the question that began this essay – “What insights, if any, are to be gained by studying the unsuccessful promotion of failed media technologies?” If nothing else these texts make clear that with regards to new media technologies often all that stands between success and failure is a matter of communication.

Bibliography Andrews, R. (2008, November 11). Mobile TV Has Failed, But There’s Still Hope. Retrieved from

Block, R. (2008, August 26). A stroll through the MVNO Graveyard. Retrieved from

Boddy, W. (2004). New Media and Popular Imagination: Launching Radio, Television, and Digital Media in the United States, New York: Oxford University Press.

Bull, M. (2004), “To Each Their Own Bubble”: Mobile Spaces of Sound in the City. In N. Couldry and A. McCarthy (Eds.) Mediaspace: Place, Scale, and Culture in a Media Age (275-293), London: Routledge.


Cellular-News. (2006, March 27). Report Predicts Robust Growth for Mobile TV. Retrieved from

Cheng, R. (2006, April 4). Mobile TV Takes Center Stage At Wireless Trade Show. Retrieved from

Cuneo, A. (2007, March 27). Amp'd Opens Review for $35M Creative Account. Retrieved from

Dawson, M. (2007, June 18). The Power to Entertain Yourself: Mobile Video Strikes Out (Again). Retrieved from

Duryee, T. (2010, February 5). Three Super Bowl Commercials Later, Will You Know What Mobile TV Is? Retrieved from

Fierce Mobile Content. (2006, November 28). Forecast: Mobile Entertainment Market to Reach $77B by 2011. Retrieved from

33 to-reach-77b-by-2011/2006-11-29

Gordon, E. (2010). The Urban Spectator: American Concept-Cities from Kodak to Google, Lebanon, NH: Dartmouth University Press.

Higginbotham, S. (2008, February 13). MWC: Mobile Video Isn’t All That. Retrieved from

Kedrowsky, P. (2006, October 2). Why We Don’t Get the (Text) Messages. Retrieved from 255/index.htm

Kharif, O. (2004, December 1). TV Phones Prep for Prime Time. Retrieved from 19.htm

Lind-Mallo, E. (2005, November 30). Amp’d Mobile: Death and Humor. Retrieved from

Lipartito, K. (2003). Picturephone and the Information Age: The Social Meaning of Failure. Technology and Culture, 44(1), 50-81.


Lotz, A. (2007). The Television Will Be Revolutionized. New York: NYU Press.

Lowry, T. (2006, October 30). ESPN’s Cell-Phone Fumble. Retrieved from

Marshall, M. (2007, July 20). What Were They Thinking? Retrieved from

McCarthy, A. (2001). Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mobiledia. (2007, May 7). Mobile TV Most Popular Among Males and Young. Retrieved from:

Morse, M. (1990). An Ontology of Everyday Distraction. In P. Mellencamp (ed.) Logics of Television (193-221), Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Murph, D. (2010, October 5). FLO TV Killing Direct-to-Consumer Programming in Spring 2011, Will Make Necessary Refunds. Retrieved from

35 programming-in-spring-2011-wi

Nielsen Wire. (2009, September 30). Women, Teens, and Seniors Help Fuel 34% Mobile Web Spike. Retrieved from

O’Brien, K. (2010, May 30). Mobile TV's Last Frontier. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Riley, D. (2007, July 2). Amp’d Mobile Implodes. Retrieved from

Rosenthal, J. (2007, September 1). Mobile Meltdown. Retrieved from

Santo, B. (2010, June 4). Qualcomm: Flo TV a Disappointment. Retrieved from

Spigel, L. (1992). Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar

36 America, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Spigel, L. (2001). Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

System Mobile (2007, July 21). The Failure of Mobile ESPN. Retrieved from

Tan, E. (2007, March 7). Futurists Debate Digital’s Emerging Trends. Retrieved from

Tartakoff, J. and Kramer, S. (2010, October 5). Qualcomm Goes Public with FLO TV Cancellation. Retrieved from

Tichi, C. (1991). Electronic Hearth: Creating an American Television Culture, New York: Oxford University Press.

Walsh, M. (2010, October 5). FLO TV Doomed By Easier, Free Alternatives. Retrieved from fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=137066

37 Williams, R. (2003). Television: Technology and Cultural Form, London: Routledge Classics.

Wolff, J. (1993). On the Road Again: Metaphors of Travel in Cultural Criticism. Cultural Studies, 7 (2), 224-39.


Mobile television uses wireless networks to stream content to subscribers’ handsets so that

programming is viewed synchronously with its transmission. Contrast this to portable video technologies which store content on hard drives for later viewing. For more on this distinction, see Lotz (2007).

Mobile television’s backers have at various points included Verizon, AT&T, Walt Disney Co.,

MTV Networks, Qualcomm, and News Corporation.

Amp’d and ESPN Mobile were mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that leased

wireless spectrum from larger mobile networks and bundled their television services together with voice communications.

Raymond Williams (2003) argues that television expresses and to a certain extent

attenuates one of modernity’s defining contradictions: namely, the tension between, on the one hand, modern forms of conveyance, social mobility, and patterns of population distribution, and, on the other, the decidedly privatized character of modern life. According to Williams, television’s amenability with this thoroughly contradictory way of life derives from its ability to afford its audiences experiences of vicarious mobility that could be enjoyed within the privacy of their own homes, a mode of experience he terms “mobile privatization” (19-21).

A companion piece from the same campaign features a woman in a similar position of

control, only in this version the action takes place inside during a family reunion, where the woman commands her family members to engage in similarly demeaning stunts. Here, however, the control is divorced from geographic mobility, and is confined to the domestic sphere and the family circle.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful