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How Much of a Role Will Mobile Phones Play in the Future of TV?
While older viewers prefer streaming to a living room television, Millennial and Gen Z viewers agree: The small screen is big! Now where's the 4K?

I think we can all agree that the traditional television experience—you know, sitting on your couch and watching the TV according to some sort of schedule—is undergoing a transformation. The different ways people watch video content is exploding across devices, apps, and websites. Video has been unchained from the family room and is roaming around the subways, grocery store lines, and coffee shops. People are watching from everywhere.

Behind this transformation are core technologies, like IP, consumer demand, and even new innovations like AR/VR. It’s really a convergence of forces that will work together, over the next decade, to fundamentally change how people consume video content. But the device that will likely play the biggest role is the smartphone. Really? Yep.

Sure, for 2-minute YouTube content, it makes total sense (especially when you need video to explain how to replace the garbage disposal, and a laptop won’t fit underneath the sink very easily). But when I think about people watching full-length movies and TV shows on their phones, a host of questions jumps to mind: Isn’t the screen too small? Doesn’t video consume too much data? Isn’t the quality going to be worse?

Despite those questions, it makes total sense that people are watching more and more video of all types on their phones. People are addicted to their phones; some studies say people check them more than 150 times each day (mainly for social media, of course). They have these devices in their pockets, or on their nightstands, 24/7/365. So it makes perfect sense that they would turn to them to watch video. And when you consider how much screen resolutions have improved, it’s really not a stretch to imagine people wanting to watch more video on them. It would seem that portability and convenience trump the size of the screen itself. In fact, according to a recent mobile video study published by the Streaming Video Alliance, Millennials would rather watch video on their mobile phones than on devices connected to their TVs! And that selection of phone over TV is even more prevalent for younger viewers. A recent study by Google and Ipsos uncovered that Generation Z favors watching video on mobile phones even more than Millennials. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that I enjoy watching sporting events (NHL Center Ice) on my phone.

Watching video on a smartphone is clearly a growing trend. And Cisco agrees. In its annual Visual Networking Index report, it predicts that more than 80 percent of mobile traffic will be video in just a few years.

But we can’t get around the data consumption. Watching an hour-long hockey game at 720p, for example, is going to chew through a lot of bits. Enter unlimited data plans. The carriers are back at it again, competing against one another to woo consumers with the ability to stream and consume whatever they want. The hounds have been unleashed, and people are responding by watching more video, whether it’s on YouTube or Netflix.

And quality? I don’t think we are very far from having true 4K-capable mobile phones. And when that happens, people will look for higher-quality video content (even though it won’t make a big visual impact because of the size of the screen).

What does this mean for content distributors and broadcasters that are delivering online video to their subscribers? I think the answer is clear—focus on mobile first. If the video experience isn’t tailored for the small screen, there’s a good chance that consumers (or subscribers) will find content elsewhere that is.

The future of television is in the palms of our hands, it would seem. Now, if you’ll forgive me, I need to stop writing so I can watch some more La La Land on my phone as I wait in line at Starbucks for my coffee.

[This article appears in the June 2017 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "How Big of a Role Will Mobile Phones Play in the Future of Television?"]

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