Microsoft Corp has teamed up with a handful of Hollywood studios to sell TV shows and rent movies that can be downloaded through the software maker's Xbox Live online video-game service and beamed straight onto television sets.
The company announced on Monday that beginning on Nov. 22, Xbox Live users with the latest console will be able to choose from shows including South Park, which airs on MTV's Comedy Central and CBS Corp's CSI, and movies including Warner Bros' V for Vendetta and Paramount Pictures' Mission Impossible III.
In addition to CBS, Warner Bros Home Entertainment and Viacom Inc's Paramount Pictures and MTV Networks, Microsoft has signed agreements with Turner Broadcasting System Inc and Ultimate Fighting Championship, a privately held Las Vegas company that primarily broadcasts pay-per-view fights.
The financial terms of the part-nerships were not disclosed.
Ross Honey, senior director of Microsoft's media, content and partner strategy group, estimated that 750 hours of programming would be available as soon as the service launches and roughly 1,000 hours by the end of the year.
The programming -- most of it in standard-definition format and some in high-definition -- will be available through the Xbox 360 console to any user of Xbox Live's free or paid online service, which allows gamers with broadband connections to send text or voice messages to each other, and watch movie trailers and other product demonstrations.
Microsoft has not said how much the downloads will cost, only that prices for programs broadcast in standard definition will be "competitive" with those offered by rivals, including Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes store, Movielink and Amazon.com's Unbox.
TV shows through those services generally go for US$1.99 per episode, while movie rentals generally cost about US$3.99. Microsoft will sell TV shows for purchase only, and the only option for movies will be a rental that expires 24 hours after you start watching it.
High-definition content will cost more than standard-definition programming because it requires a lot more bandwidth to broadcast in the higher-quality format, Honey said.
A key advantage Microsoft is hoping will play in its favor is that consumers will be able to watch the content on their TV sets rather than on computers or portable digital devices, the standards for most of the competing services.
"Being able to watch on your TV, yeah, that's a pretty big deal," said David Cole, president of DFC Intelligence, a market research firm based in San Diego.
IPods and other devices can be plugged into TV sets with optional cables, though the picture quality usually suffers a bit. A handful of gadgets that act as a bridge between computers and TVs also are available but have not gained much consumer traction.
Apple's chief executive, Steve Jobs, recently showed off a compact set-top box, dubbed iTV, that will allow consumers to wirelessly send movies purchased online -- as well as other digital content stored on a computer -- to a television set. He said it will be available early next year.
Much like the Media Center edition of Windows XP, which Microsoft touts as an all-in-one PC and home entertainment center, the new Xbox service aims to bolster Microsoft's presence in the living room. Nevertheless, industry analysts are not predicting it will drive hordes of people to buy the Xbox console.