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SMALL SCREENS HOLD BIG DREAMS

For ESPN and other broadcasters, the future - or at least a part of it - is programming produced specifically for cell phones.

More than two dozen huge white satellite dishes surround ESPN's 100-acre 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 cell phone.

After some hits and misses in creating content for cell phones, ESPN believes it knows how to keep up with its fans as they go about their days. Cell phones 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.

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 cell phone content.

But the mobile media model is far from proven. Only 44 percent of cell phone 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 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.

But ESPN is clearly onto something. More than 9-million people visit its cell phone Web site each month, a following that surpasses the audience of most computer-based Web sites. ESPN has already weathered some consumer indifference when it comes to cell phones. Early last year, it introduced its own pricey cell phone and cell service for sports fans. Despite a flashy Super Bowl commercial and lavish marketing, the phone received a ho-hum reception, and ESPN stopped offering it last fall. Still, ESPN employees here remain true believers: their phone failed, they say, because of consumers' reluctance to change phone carriers, not because of any lack of interest in mobile content. Indeed, ESPN's content is perfectly suited for the mobile world. Sports fans, after all, like to closely monitor their favorite players and teams - timely information that fits comfortably into what media executives call "snack size" content.

The News Corp., steward of the Fox Network and Fox Studios, is so fond of short cell phone videos that it has trademarked a term to describe them: "mobisodes."

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