Chapter 2: “All You’ll Need is a Mobile Couch”: The History of Mobile Television in the United States

Noah Arceneaux

In the final decades of the 20th century, mobile phones became smaller, cheaper, and an almost mandatory accessory for anyone in the middle-class. In the 21st century, the growth of these devices has not slowed, though they now do far more than simply relay voice communications, and have become a profitable platform for content producers, marketers, and designers. In sharp contrast to traditional media industries, including television, print, and recorded music, which have seen dramatic declines in revenue, the growth of mobile media applications signals a pronounced shift in how consumers will access news and entertainment in the coming decades.

This chapter explores the current explosion mobile media by examining a forgotten episode in media history, the Telephone Herald of 1911-12. Inspired by a similar venture in Hungary, this media outlet delivered news, music, and children’s entertainment to subscribers in Newark, New Jersey, via telephone lines. Though the company lasted only a few months, its programming foreshadowed the content that would eventually be delivered to listeners over radio airwaves in the following decade. This early attempt at using the phone for the distribution of media content is contrasted with the MediaFlo system, one of the current technologies for transmitting video to mobile phones. Qualcomm, the company behind MediaFlo, has not found the success they were envisioning with this initiative, and this chapter draws from interviews with engineers and technicians at the company to detail some of the specific obstacles that have been encountered. Mobile television has become quite popular in certain parts of the world, South Korea in particular, though Americans have not embraced this method for viewing video content as rapidly as marketers initially hoped.

In addition to contrasting these two specific business ventures, this chapter also seeks to explore some of the tropes associated with “new media” in general. The specifics of technology may change over time, though the particular hopes and visions which the public attaches to the latest media innovations remain remarkably durable in American popular culture. This historical perspective on mobile media thus hopes to contextualize the current situation, and provide a more realistic perspective on the latest “revolution” in media.