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Xbox 360 Is More Than Just A Toy

Recently, I couldn’t justify to my wife buying the popular Xbox 360 video-game console just for the fun of playing “Madden NFL 2007” or “Halo 2.”

But the folks at Microsoft turned the sleek, curvy, white machine with high-definition capability into a pseudo-cable box that can deliver high-definition broadcast and cable shows and theatrical releases for the whole family to enjoy.

So now, after hours of knocking out Oscar De La Hoya on EA Sports’ “Fight Night Round 3” or throwing touchdown passes to T.O. via “Madden,” I can push a button and download Warner Bros. “Superman Returns” for her and “SpongeBob SquarePants” for the kids. That way, the Xbox can remain in the family room instead of being relegated to a junk room in the back of the house. It’s also good for video games, I hear.

Not that my video-game jones is anywhere near that of the obsessed folks who camped out — and, in some instances, punched out — other video game devotees during overnight stays at their local Best Buy or Circuit City last fall, in an effort to get Sony’s PlayStation3 or Nintendo’s Wii gaming platforms.

More interesting to me is how networks such as MTV, Comedy Central, CBS and Cartoon Network hope to capitalize by allowing users to download their products to the Xbox console to watch on TV.

Ultimate Fighting Championship president Dana White says its Xbox 360 deal is the best way yet for his mixed martial arts outfit to distribute matches and other content to its target male audience. The UFC will make available a number of its fights, as well as clips from its successful Ultimate Fighter series on Spike TV.

“Our demos are the same — 18- to 34-year-old males — so the deal completely makes sense,” he said. “We’re the right programming for them, and they’re the right place for us to be.”

And they don’t even have to have cable or a computer. “What Microsoft has going for them is that it is a box connected to the TV set,” said Bruce Leitchman, president of new media research company Leitchman Research Group.

No cable box necessary. No computer screen needed. Just a game console, a high-speed Internet connection and a wireless game controller is all that’s required and access to quality, high def filmed television and Hollywood product on the television screen.

Oh, and your checkbook.

The XBox 360 console costs $299 — $399 if you want all the bells and whistles, like wireless game controllers. Video games like “Madden” cost $50 or more, and a subscription to play your friends 1,000 miles away via the XBox Live high-speed Internet distribution system will cost you an additional $60 a year.

But the costs get kind of murky when it gets to downloading shows and movies to the Xbox console. Microsoft employs a points system whose price value-to-points equation would make the most studious mathematician batty.

At Best Buy, you can buy 1,600 points for $20, but it’s still unclear how many points it’ll cost to buy an episode of Adult Swim’s “Aqua Team Hunger Force” or MTV’s “Pimp My Ride.” Apple’s iTunes set the standard by charging $1.99 for most of its TV video downloads, so it’ll be interesting to see how much Microsoft diverts from that. Typical downloads of movies like “The Matrix” and “Batman Forever” will cost at least $10 to $20, which could be 800 to 1,600 points on the Microsoft scale.

Microsoft is the first company to try to marry true, hard-core video game addicts and TV couch potatoes. Whether that marriage survives competition that will inevitably come from Sony and Nintendo or from this far a paucity of television content — the Xbox video offerings are but a drop in the bucket compared to iTunes or Amazon’s Unbox — is anyone’s guess.

But what it does offer is yet another glimpse of the future. New-generation toys like the Xbox 360 will compete for consumers’ entertainment dollars with television sent down cable pipes or video sent down the Net.