More than two dozen huge white satellite dishes surround ESPN's 40-hectare campus, each transmitting and plucking electronic signals from the skies. Tucked inside that digital fence are 10 buildings, all devoted to producing and broadcasting ESPN's cable sports programs. Deeper inside the campus sits another building, largely occupied by a team of 20-somethings and a few middle-aged managers, that produces sports content for just one device: the cellphone.
After some hits and misses in creating content for cellphones, ESPN thinks it knows how to keep up with its fans as they go about their days. cellphones and other mobile devices, says ESPN, are natural platforms for its content. Consumers waiting in line, riding a bus or sitting in a cafeteria will use their phones to watch sports commentary or to check scores just as often as they glance at their wristwatches -- or so the thinking goes. In ESPN's view, it is only a matter of time, and mobile technology upgrades, until "phone watching" is as common as phone calling.
"People talk about it being the third screen," says John Zehr, senior vice president for digital video and mobile products at ESPN. "I talk about it being the first screen because it's the closest to you."
ESPN isn't alone. Other companies, like CBS and MTV, as well as news organizations like The Associated Press and magazine concerns like the Hearst Corp, are investing in original cellphone content. After all, there is no other medium that most people carry with them everywhere, and some media executives are wagering that consumers will fill their empty moments -- however fleeting -- with mobile media content.
Apple Inc, meanwhile, is just weeks away from introducing the iPhone, a product that some analysts speculate may reshape how people use their cellphones and increase demand for content on mobile devices. "It may start driving people's mind-set to think, `Oh, I can do this mobilely,'" Zehr says.
But the mobile media model is far from proven. Only 44 percent of cellphone owners use data services like video or the Internet on their phones, according to Forrester Research. Among those who use phones for more than calling, 88 percent of them use messaging, mostly text messaging, and about a quarter surf the Web, but only 7 percent watch videos. Screen size and low resolution are problems, analysts say, and many consumers seem uninterested in content on their phones.
"A lot of what is being said is being driven by what is technically possible as opposed to any real understanding of just what people are doing," says Mike Bloxham, research director at the Center for Media Design at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
"Yes, it is possible to watch video on many of the cellphones people are buying," he said, "but you have to look at how many people are doing that."
But ESPN is clearly onto something. More than nine million people visit its cellphone Web site each month, a following that surpasses the audience of most computer-based Web sites. Some sports fans apparently cannot wait to reach their homes or offices to check the score of a Patriots game or to see if their favorite pitcher has tossed a no-hitter, so tens of thousands of them receive an average of 22 ESPN text messages on their phones each week.
As he finishes taping a segment for the cellphone show ESPN ReSet -- a recap of morning programs on ESPN -- Trey Wingo, the show's anchor, says mobile-content skeptics will be proved wrong. Wingo says that when ESPN made its debut as a cable channel in 1979, doubters said that "people weren't going to watch a 24-hour sports network -- it's similar to what they're saying about cellphones now."