ORLANDO, Fla. - Try shopping for a "Watchman" on Sony's Web site, and all you'll find is music. Though the company kept making the handheld TV for two decades, it never caught on like the Walkman, or, more recently, the iPod.
Yet it was earlier this decade, right about the same time that Sony Corp. was halting Watchman production, that the cellular industry grew bent on bringing live television to cell phones, unimpressed by the market's apparent rejection of watching TV on a 2- or 3-inch screen.
Well, cell TV is here now. And since it's not free like broadcast television, the wireless industry will find out soon enough whether people want their squint TV.
In early March, Verizon Wireless introduced an eight-channel service that broadcasts programming, much of it identical to that being shown on regular TV, including shows from CBS, Comedy Central, ESPN, Fox and NBC. The service, delivered over an $800 million network being built by Qualcomm Inc. and slated to expand to 20 channels, will also be offered later this year by AT&T Inc.'s Cingular Wireless under a recent deal.
"I don't know if people will want to watch it, but every time I say one of these 'I don't knows,' it goes beyond my wildest imagination," said Randall Stephenson, AT&T's chief operating officer.
He pointed to the explosive growth of text messaging despite the lack of a full keyboard on cell phones, and the demand for ringtones, an $800 million a year revenue stream for AT&T.
Outside the U.S., 400,000 people in Italy are using a cell TV service launched less than a year ago by mobile carrier 3, a unit of Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. Those customers, representing nearly 6 percent of the carrier's 7 million users, are paying as much as $40 extra per month for TV on the go. In Korea, several million have signed up for mobile TV services from TU Media Corp. and others since 2005.
Such a swift customer embrace would likely thrill Verizon, which is charging $15 to $25 a month for V Cast Mobile TV. The company, its revenue per subscriber stuck in the $50 range, won't say how many have signed up for TV since the launch in roughly 20 markets, but there are encouraging signs.
Three weeks after getting the $200 Samsung handset for V Cast service, Charles Durham returned to the Verizon kiosk at a BJ's Wholesale Club in Jacksonville, Fla., to buy a second for his son.
"He's an overachiever as it is at school, a straight-A student. He knows his responsibilities in his short life," said Mr. Durham, 45, the owner of a company that makes sanitizing compounds. Mr. Durham says he bought the phone so he could watch Fox News when he's eating lunch, but has been checking ESPN for updates on the NCAA basketball tournament.
"The quality is clear as a bell on the basketball," he said.
Mr. Durham's example is especially noteworthy because until now, he's made little use of the premium services on his phone, such as Web access or downloading music. That means the extra money he's paying for mobile TV won't come at a cost to Verizon's other gravy-generating services.