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Starz Launches PMC Service With Microsoft

Looking to revolutionize the home video industry, Starz! Entertainment Group announced here Jan. 3 the launch of a beta test for an Internet video delivery service targeting Media Center PCs and Personal Media Center (PMC) handheld media players.

The service will be available to a new class of video-enabled PMCs that will be unveiled by a number of manufacturers at International CES this week.

Starz and Microsoft announced a partnership to deliver premium downloaded video content to devices based on a new version of Microsoft’s PMC operating system. A number of consumer electronics manufacturers will announce portable media players based on the version 2 of the PMC software at CES.

The two companies worked together on a “unique system” of digital rights management (DRM) and business rules that will “allow the transfer of movies and subscription downloads to PMC devices,” said Bob Greene, Starz! Entertainment Group advanced services and new technologies senior VP.

The Starz service — called VONGO, short for “video on the go” — will be offered to broadband PC owners as a $9.99 monthly subscription or as a $3.99 la carte pay-per-view video download.

Pay-per-view titles will also include early released films that are not yet eligible for the monthly subscription package.

Users will be able to download VHS (and eventually DVD) quality videos over broadband connections to a PC, from where they can be relayed to a PMC handheld device for playback on the go. A subscription to the service will support playback of downloaded content on up to three devices.

Titles and viewing periods are administered using Windows Digital Rights Management (DRM) software, Greene said. Monthly subscribers will have unlimited playback opportunity of any title listed in a given month. Pay-per-view customers can watch a film for a 24-hour period after playback has started. At the end of the viewing period the downloaded file is automatically erased from the user’s hard drive.

VONGO will offer approximately 870 titles of newly released and classic movies, extreme sporting events and long-form concerts at launch, and will continually rotate titles in and out at the end of each month.

Because of Starz’ exclusive distribution agreements with most of the major studios, Greene said VONGO will have one of the most extensive catalogs of new releases and popular classics available for distribution over the Internet.

“Consumers have told us that they want is as broad a selection of movies as possible and early access to the top movies,” Greene told TWICE. “We will give them that with VONGO.”

VONGO is similar in some respects to the company’s Starz! Ticket service, which launched in June 2004. However, Starz! Ticket relied on RealNetworks’ playback software using the Helix DRM, which few studios agreed to use for distribution to portable media devices.

Instead, VONGO is using the Windows Media Player software and Windows DRM, which have received the support of many major studios, Greene said.

“With VONGO, we wanted to build a new service that would take advantage of everything we’ve learned from our Starz! Ticket subscribers and from the market as well as take advantage of new partnerships we’ve created,” Greene said.

He said VONGO’s downloadable application software for the PC “will allow users to navigate through all of the movies, whether online or offline, in the same environment, regardless of Internet connectivity status.”

“The installation will be very simple relative to what we have today,” said Greene.