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Have phone, will watch: Fox Mobile rolls out subscription TV for smartphones

March 24, 2010 |  2:35 pm

Couch potatoes soon will be able to liberate themselves from the couch. A new service is launching that allows TV addicts to watch "30 Rock," "The Office" and other shows on the teeny tiny screens of their smartphones.

Fox Mobile Group on Wednesday unveiled a new wireless video subscription service called Bitbop, which it plans to launch in the spring. Bitbop will offer on-demand access to cable and broadcast TV shows from Fox's cable networks and NBC Universal for a $9.99 monthly fee.  MobiLEDTVkvsvnhnc

Chris Hoerenz, Fox Mobile's chief marketing officer, said Bitbop will seek to capitalize on the rapidly growing smartphone market, which analyst Yankee Group estimates will reach 57 million handsets by the end of the year.

By offering the mobile application as a free Internet download, Bitbop will be able to deliver mobile entertainment to any of the most popular mobile devices, including RIM's BlackBerry Curve, Apple's iPhone 3G and Motorola's Droid, regardless of which mobile phone carrier the subscriber uses.

"There isn't anyone out there who's done a really good job of covering the complete smartphone market," Hoerenz said.

The Fox Mobile group, which includes the Jamba and Jamster brands, apparently learned at least one lesson from Hulu's success: don't offer your premium TV programs on a new distribution platform without charging a subscription fee.

But such mobile subscription video services haven't been a ringing success.

One survey of 15,000 American consumers conducted by Yankee Group found that fewer than 10%  of mobile phone owners subscribe to a streaming video service. Independent ventures, like Qualcomm's MediaFlo service, haven't overcome the hurdle of the $15-a-month subscription fee, said Carl D. Howe, Yankee Group's director of consumer research.

"My take is that other companies joining this market will be competing for a relatively small market of consumers," Howe said.

The bigger challenge for pay services like Bitbop may be increased competition from local TV broadcasters. A new mobile DTV standard clears the way for local stations to inexpensively modify their broadcast equipment and begin beaming live local news and other shows for free to mobile phones.

And Fox Mobile may not be long for the News Corp. family. The companies, which News Corp. acquired for a total of $381 million, may be spun off, like other digital businesses, the Financial Times reported.

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski

Photo: A  mobile DTV device on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show n Las Vegas. Credit: Andrew Gombert /EPA