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Starz! Ticket Eyes Video Portables

Cable and satellite movie distributor Starz Encore Group has taken its service to a new platform by pioneering Internet-reliant movie distribution for laptop PC users. Now it is preparing to take that service to the next level by enabling users of handheld portable video devices to view those movie downloads as well.

Called Starz! Ticket, the new service launched in June offering subscribers the ability to download near-DVD-quality versions of major films from the Internet for later playback on PC screens.

The company is now negotiating content licensing rights and enabling new playback software that will enable distribution to the hard-drive-equipped handheld video players that are coming to market this year.

“Today, we remain focused on PCs, but right around the corner are portable media players, which we view as offering a very compelling way of taking our movies on the road,” said Bob Greene, Starz Encore Group Advanced Services’ senior VP.

He said the company will be looking to partner with both the hardware manufacturers and CE retailers to sell Starz! Ticket subscriptions for the new devices.

The current version of the service, called Starz! Ticket on Real Movies works in conjunction with Real Network’s Helix digital compression and playback technology and uses that company’s RealPlayer software for accessing, downloading and playing back movie files supplied by Starz!.

The company is also working with Real Networks to provide a Windows Media Player solution for the near future.

End users subscribe to the service for $12.95 a month, and are allowed an unlimited number of downloads. Greene said Starz! has acquired Internet distribution licenses to over 5,000 feature films, although only 150 are currently available to download at any one time. The service provider changes out 25 percent to 35 percent of its movie selection every week.

Films include many titles released for cable TV viewing, with release windows for Starz! Ticket often preceding by days or weeks those for Starz’s regular cable movie channels.

In order to take advantage of the service, Starz said viewers will need a broadband connection speed of 600Kbps or higher from their DSL, satellite or broadband cable service provider. An average movie file is compressed to fit into about a 500MB file, and requires about 2.5 hours to download at a 600Kbps rate, or 25 minutes at a 3Mbps rate.

“We could have offered it at 256Kbps but at that level the download experience wouldn’t have been that positive,” said Greene. “We would rather not have you than to let you have a negative experience.”

The software gives users the option to schedule downloads for later use, or to view a live video stream of movies on the Starz! East cable channel.

Downloaded movies are protected with Helix Digital Rigths Management software (eventually Microsoft Janus DRM will be added), which allows users a four-week to six-week window in which to view a downloaded film. Once the movie leaves the Starz! Ticket service at the end of that period the software automatically deletes the file from a user’s hard drive.

Due to bandwidth limitations, Starz! currently does not offer high-definition movies through Starz! Ticket, but Greene said as technology advances, he expects to add high-definition capability, among other things.

“We think the future is incremental to our current business,” said Greene. “This is about people being able to access movies when they want them and where they want them.”

“A lot of different companies are now looking at this space as the next sea change in how you distribute content to consumers,” he continued. “We believe that because of the penetration of broadband, and the speeds associated with that, that we have reached an inflection point where we can start building this business.