By Kim Tong-hyung
Mobile television, dubbed digital multimedia broadcasting (DMB) here, now has an audience of some 13.7 million, according to latest data. Ready for prime time, however, it is not.
The number of DMB-enabled receivers sold here reached 13.69 million in June.
Most of the television services were provided through mobile phones, which accounted for 48.4 percent of all DMB subscribers.
There are about six million mobile-phone users with handsets enabled to handle the free terrestrial DMB services, while another 1.31 million are subscribed to satellite DMB, a pay-based offering by SK Telecom, the country's biggest wireless carrier.
Car navigation systems and other DMB-enabled terminals used in vehicles accounted for 37.8 percent of DMB receivers, followed by portable media players at 9.4 percent and USB devices at 3.8 percent. Laptop computers were the least popular DMB device, accounting for just 0.9 percent of all receivers.
It's virtually impossible to count the exact number of mobile television viewers, as terrestrial DMB services are provided free to anyone with an enabled device, unlike the subscription-based satellite DMB. Nonetheless the sheer number of DMB receivers proves that watching television on the move has become conventional here.
But viewer ratings give different tones to the story. TNS Media, a local research firm, announced the viewer rating for terrestrial DMB services based on the single day of Aug. 1.
The overall viewer rating for the day was just 1.172 percent, peaking at 3.585 percent during the commuting hours of 6 to 7 p.m. in the survey, which the company claimed was the world's first rating report for mobile television services.
And, in a somewhat surprising discovery, male viewers in their 50s proved the largest audience for mobile television rather than tech-savvy youngsters hunting down cool gadgets.
Viewership was also relatively high among men in their 40s and 30s, but miniscule among women and younger customers.
The numbers indicate that mobile television is hardly essential to its users, but rather a brief way to ease the boredom of the bumpy subway ride back home.
Electronics makers and mobile-phone carriers had furiously pitched mobile television prior to its commercial debut in 2005, leading customers to replace their handsets with more advanced and expensive products and spend money on wireless services.
Less than two years later, however, the business potential of DMB remains debatable. The struggles of TU Media, the SK Telecom affiliate that handles the satellite DMB services, expose the subscription-based model as unprofitable.
The company had trouble securing ``killer content" with conventional television broadcasters reluctant to share programs when they are pushing their own terrestrial DMB services. TU Media says it needs about 2.5 million customers to be profitable, which is a nearly double its current customer pool.
It's not that the terrestrial DMB, which relies on advertising, is a smashing success on the commercial end either. The six terrestrial DMB providers, which include the three national television channels KBS, MBC and SBS, combined for just six billion won (about $5.9 million) in revenue last year.
Considering it takes about 500 million won to 600 million won per month for each company to operate the services, terrestrial DMB has clearly been a money-losing business.
Sustaining the ad-supported business model has been difficult when advertisers struggle to get a clear idea of how effective their commercials on DMB can be.
A 15-second commercial on DMB costs about 500,000 to 600,000 won in the ``prime time" hours during the morning and evening commuting hours and lunch. In comparison, a 15-second commercial on national television during prime time, which is around 10 p.m., costs at least 10 million won.