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At the moment, in Australia at least, mobile phones are the new buzz technology for delivering news, info, porn and entertainment. Documentarians have joined the rush to the mobile. Telcos are hungry for content and those filmmakers who’ve worked in the online environment are upgrading skills to create portals and interactive mobile phone docos. It’s early days.

Major broadcasters like BBC and NBC are mostly treating mobile phones as a platform, one of many mobile ways of viewing material. Mobile phones are placed in the same category as portable media centres and iPods. To date, broadcaster alliances with telcos to create exciting new documentaries are limited. In Australia the national broadcaster, ABC, provides news for the Telstra portal: a picture followed by 3 or 4 paragraphs of text. Snippet News. They are yet to discover the full potential of mobiles. Commercial channels are mainly using mobiles as a way for youth audiences to vote for their favourite character on reality TV programmes. Clearly there is far more potential. Only in Korea has a full TV network for mobiles been established but unfortunately they commission very little, relying instead on material that is already popular on regular TV.

Image gatherers

For broadcasters the mobile phone functions more as an independent news gathering device than a delivery platform. Think of the masses of images of the London bombings that the BBC used in conventional broadcasts and online. Other broadcasters are following suit and disasters around the world are now being covered by victims and onlookers. Disaster coverage has become postmodern. Of course amateur video has been around for a while. Think of the impact in the US of the Rodney King bashing footage. The amateurs of the 20th century were limited to those who happened to have a video camera handy, mainly tourists. Now almost everyone in the first world has a mobile camera, the cinematographers are endless.

The problem is verifying the authenticity of the images and their context. In the wake of the recent cyclone in Queensland, the ABC asked its audience to send through images of the disaster. Because phone lines were down there was no way for the ABC to verify most of the images they received. They published them on trust, and on their assessment that they were indeed of that particular cyclone.

Myth of the ephemeral

For documentary makers the story is different. While broadcasters are using mobiles as a platform of immediacy, documentaries on the whole are anything but projects of immediacy. How can documentarians train the audience to use them as catalysts for revisiting the past or provoking analysis of the current world order? Where does mobile delivery sit in the plethora of media?

It is interesting to take a look at the internet as a way of understanding how new media is consumed. The major broadcasters around the world are fast coming to the realisation that the online environment is far from ephemeral. Quite the opposite, it lengthens the life of a documentary by years. Prior to 3G mobile technology the web was thought of as the ‘immediacy’ media form. Online news updated each hour, emails flashing through systems and traversing the world in seconds. Yet the usage data on major sites associated with documentaries shows a life span of years after the broadcast date. At the 2006 Australian International Documentary Conference, Annie Valva explained that her site Evolution has been Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” site for a few years. For the uninitiated that means that the site associated with the documentary has more sites linking to it on the web than any other site that discusses the concept of evolution. The BBC are so excited by the ‘tail end’ life provided by the web that they are even revisiting archived documentaries and versioning them for the web environment.

I’m arguing that there is the potential for mobile platforms to inherit the longevity that the web has created for the documentary. In fact the most ephemeral of the broadcast options is the conventional free-to-air or pay TV ‘appointment television.’ The documentary is accessible in perpetuity on the web.

Red lion inspired by rising sun

In England there was a recent project created by the BBC Natural History unit that gave information to tourists in situ via their mobile phones. Instead of reading a guidebook they photographed a pixel image on a sign that told them by phone to go to a certain site to access information about this view, or this building. This opens up the potential for documentaries to interact with space and place. This project was inspired by the use of mobiles in Asia, especially Japan. When it comes to new ways to use them Japan is in the lead. Basically the mobile is becoming what the watch was to Buck Rogers and other sci-fi heroes of the 20th century. It will have everything and be able to do everything.

In Japan mobile ownership is approaching saturation and companies are now reaching out to children by creating phones that include GPS and emergency help alarms. The same Natural History unit at BBC has turned this around and created a game. The kids role-play lions in the savannah using GPS to locate themselves in the make-believe world. In a combination of documentary and new technology, anthropomorphising is taken to the extreme.

Problems with mobiles

There are the obvious problems: multiple platforms that are not compatible; different screen sizes; lack of bandwidth etc. These technical issues need to be resolved, but not by documentary makers. Their issues are to do with content and how the viewer interacts with it.

One of the problems that occurs in the online environment is that not much of the product out there engages on an emotional level. A good feature length or TV hour documentary will engage, you’ll cry or laugh or feel angry and reach a cathartic conclusion. The mobile platform has the potential to leap out of the fact-heavy internet world and engage with emotions. This is an intimate device that you hold in your hands, near your body. Viewers will be open to material beyond what they expect on the medium screen net. One of the few Australian internet documentary producers engaging this emotional level is BIG hART ( It will be interesting to see what the group creates for mobiles, especially since their target audience is disaffected youth.

Most pressing among the tech issues for documentary are sound and image clarity. Mobiles have dreadful sound unless the user wears earphones. There are myths about image clarity. Sure, a cinema-style wide shot is lost on a mobile, but because of the proximity of the device to the viewer’s eyes, images shot for TV are fine for mobiles. The exception is that fast pans and shaky-cam will degrade the image, simply because it takes more memory to view a moving image. That will become less of an issue as bandwidth increases.

The most important thing is that the video clip is quick to download and access. When given the choice of high quality, slow download versus low quality, quick download the user will nearly always choose the latter. This tends to mean that shorter pieces work better for the mobile audience, whereas longer pieces, probably purchased on DVD, will be loaded on mobile media centres and iPods. In Korea they worked with the notion that viewers had an attention span of approximately 5 minutes. According to Neal Anderon from Ovum, Telstra has found Australians are happy with maerial between 5-13 minutes—engagement with the media is higher than expected.

The choice medium

Mobile devices have also become the ‘choice’ media. Already young users are downloading from i-tunes into their phones and creating their own mix of music, in essence, their own radio station. Radio has cottoned on to this and has begun to make available download versions of the talk sections. You can now schedule radio to suit you. The iPod and mobile are merging. As they do, the notion of downloadable discrete material for mobile devices is becoming common. This is not about letting people see feature documentaries on their mobiles, it’s about short pieces that are easy to consume on the peak hour train to work.

The modern user no longer buys a product, they buy an experience. It’s the experience of the cinema, or the lounge room or the intimate and handy mobile, accessible where other screens are not.

Attracting an audience

How does the audience find out about your doco? Most documentary material for mobiles will be accessed online. The main access to sites at the moment on mobile technology is through portals: index pages that contain links to a variety of sites. The most effective portals are run by the telcos. This is because when you fire up your phone it immediately takes you to your telco portal. As the bandwidth grows the portals will become less vital. Already the major search engines have created mobile phone versions of their sites, but most internet sites have not yet re-versioned to make themselves mobile phone friendly. You simply can’t interact with the page in the same way that you do at a computer. For instance, there is no mouse on a mobile, the backend coding is slightly different and screen size is certainly different. So until the net becomes more mobile savvy you can bet your favourite astrology site won’t be viewable. This means the audience is less likely to search the net on a mobile until they are sure it is going to provide viewable material. Working outside portals is a risky business at present.

A version of this article appears in DOX, the European Documentary Network magazine

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 21

© Catherine Gough-Brady; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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