A World Of Digital Dim Sum

In the beginning, our entertainment landscape looked a lot like a big family dinner. Everybody piled around the TV, and we all ate whatever the major networks were serving up. Maybe we squabbled between courses, but everyone came away largely satisfied, stuffed and lethargic.

Now iPod-shuffle ahead to 2005. Entertainment is increasingly bite-size, intense, portable and on demand. The experts call it "snacking," and say there's much more to come. We've become savvy grazers in everything from personal electronics to food to travel. The world is our tapas bar, and mobile TV may just be our next patatas bravas.

In some countries--like Britain, Italy and Cyprus--there are more cell-phone subscriptions than there are people. And observers say the age of television in our pockets has just begun. Already our cell phones are becoming portable TiVos. On Vodafone, Britons can watch two-minute highlight reels as soon as five minutes after an English Premiership football match ends. In France, Orange users download a million video clips a month and have streaming-video choices ranging from the National Geographic Channel to the Black music channel. Britain's O2, a cell-phone service provider, has drawn content from Nokia Shorts, one of a spate of ultra-short-film contests and festivals consisting of films made for or by cell phone.

Meanwhile, made-for-mobile television shows are on the rise. Fox Mobile Entertainment has patented the term "mobisode" and sells four series to mobile-phone providers worldwide. Fox's "24: Conspiracy" is a one-minute version of its real-time one-hour hit "24," but with a different cast and different writers. It has been translated into six languages and will be available in 30 territories by year end. Still, the shorter format doesn't mean skimping on action. "In the first episode, we manage to fit in a seduction, a betrayal, a murder and an identity theft," says Lucy Hood, president of Fox Mobile Entertainment.

Next on the mobile smorgasbord: live TV. This month in Oxford, England, O2 will provide up to 400 customers with live feeds from networks like BBC News 24, CNN and a short-film channel. British market-research company Informa estimates that although only 130,000 users can currently watch live TV--most in South Korea--by 2010, nearly 125 million people will be able to do so, 31 million in Europe alone. Frost & Sullivan analyst Pranab Mookken predicts that mobile television will become a billion-dollar business in Europe by 2012.

What will all these bite-size programs do to our attention span? U.S. consumer-trend researcher Iconoculture calls it "technomorphing": if rapid changes in technology haven't rewired our synapses, they have at least changed our expectations. Children today have "a level of visual literacy much higher than when we were kids," says Jonathan Steuer, a consumer strategist at Iconoculture. "Watching TV, I used to wait for something interesting to happen--totally foreign to [my 4-year-old]." Yet quick and snappy doesn't mean dumbed down. In his book "Everything Bad Is Good for You," author Steven Johnson argues that, while TV's erstwhile linear, single-themed plotlines used to call for passivity, today's increasingly multipronged programs are actually making us smarter.

Indeed, decades of ever-shrinking sound bites haven't ruined our ability to enjoy longer formats; Iconoculture consumer strategist Kirk Olson points out that Hollywood summer movies were actually longer this year. But "the way we consume narratives has changed," he says. "Even [when] they aren't short, they are in bite-size pieces." With DVDs, DVRs and iPods, our worlds are handily chapterized; we don't have to listen to full albums or watch full movies when we don't want to. "We're looking for media to fit our lives," says Olson.

There's more to come. This month Apple launched the iPod/cell-phone hybrid, the Motorola ROKR, allowing you to "hear a selection of your favorite tunes while sending text messages, taking pictures or checking your e-mail." Analysts say European mobile-TV providers aren't likely to meet their earliest target for commercially available live broadcasts, the 2006 World Cup. But "the Olympics in 2008 may be a turning point," says Mookken. "The Chinese are already saying they want it to be the digital Olympics." That would turn our mobile feast into digital dim sum.