04/11/2012 12:32 EDT | Updated 06/11/2012 05:12 EDT

TV On Smartphones: Watchers Go For Biggest Screen But Will Watch Sports, News On Smartphones


MONTREAL - Canada's big telecom companies have scooped up television stations to put content on as many screen sizes as possible, but so far few consumers appear to be using their smartphones to watch TV.

When you look at it as percentage of all TV watched, viewing television on smartphones is certainly well under one per cent, said Deloitte Canada analyst Duncan Stewart, who noted that screen size is a big consideration when it comes to how consumers view content.

"If there's a big game that you're really dying to watch and you haven't got a TV in front of you and you haven't got a laptop and you haven't got your tablet — then you pull out your smartphone," said Stewart, Deloitte Canada's director of technology, media and telecommunications.

"At the end of the day, the single biggest limiting factor is the size of the screen."

According to research by the Media Technology Monitor, only about four per cent of anglophone consumers were watching TV on their phones last year, although the figure had doubled since 2010.

Costly data plans may also be holding back the adoption of mobile viewing. Smartphone users often watch only small bits of TV —live sports, comedy, reality TV or video clips — if they're using their wireless carrier's cellular network, to ensure they stay within the limits of their monthly data plan, Stewart said.

Jean-Francois Labre isn't sold on the idea of watching TV on his smartphone, although he tried it when the service was offered to him for free.

The video "is tiny, it's small," said Labre, 39, a tax expert and mortgage broker.

"The only time I really used it was to watch hockey," he said, recalling when he was out of town at a hockey tournament and watched a Montreal Canadiens' game on his iPhone at a hotel pool.

"We were six grown men all huddled together trying to watch the hockey game around the phone."

Some see larger tablets as a more likely growth driver for mobile TV.

MTM found about three per cent of anglophone consumers watched TV on tablets last fall, although that small percentage represented a quarter of all tablet users.

"The data is still coming out on that, but there does seem to be a significant demand," Stewart said.

Even if mobile viewership is still small, TV assets are seen as a means to grow for Rogers (TSX:RCI.B), Quebecor Inc. (TSX:QBR.B) and BCE Inc. (TSX:BCE). All three have offered more programming for smartphones, tablets and personal computers —while bolstering content for their television channels — to win more subscribers and increases revenues.

Rogers owns Citytv and OMNI networks and Quebecor owns the French-language TVA network. Bell owns the CTV assets and has struck a multibillion dollar deal to buy Astral Media Inc. (TSX:ACM.A), which has specialty TV channels such as The Movie Network.

"If owning content does matter because of mobile TV on smartphones, you have to make that bet now," said Stewart of the investments into content and digital rights.

BCE has estimated it has between 200,000 and 300,000 customers watching mobile TV on smartphones and tablets, and offers five hours of live TV for $5 a month.

Bell Mobility president Wade Oosterman said people choose the screen that's convenient for their viewing and mobile gives consumers options.

"I would say most people will always prefer the biggest screen they can get," Oosterman said. "The trade off you make is against convenience."

Viewers could watch the first period of a hockey game online at work, switch to a smartphone while commuting, and then watch the third period at home on their big TV, he said.

"That's the behaviour you see," Oosterman said, adding that sports and news tend to be watched on smartphones.

"It's the immediate — what's happening live."

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