NEW YORK (Reuters) – NBC Universal said on it would let viewers buy full-length, prime-time television shows such as « The Office » and « Heroes » on-demand to play on mobile phones, a first for the United States.
The decision is the latest effort by media and wireless companies to entice consumers to watch video on their phones. The strategy aims to expand viewership outside the home and boost revenue for service providers beyond charging for phone calls.
NBC’s new service will be delivered through privately-held MobiTV, allowing viewers to stream full episodes of top-rated shows starting at $1.99 for a 24-hour period after the show airs. But prices will also depend on how much wireless service providers want to charge.
The service is expected to be available in the second quarter of 2007 and follows Verizon Wireless launch of live TV services in several U.S. markets from a network built by Qualcomm Inc.’s (Nasdaq:QCOM – news) MediaFlo USA unit.
MobiTV started streaming video to phones in 2003 and now has more than 2 million subscribers to its service in the United Kingdom, as well as North and South America.
« Everybody’s going to do this eventually, » said Outlook4Mobility analyst Andy Seybold, referring to other media and wireless companies.
Apple Inc.’s (Nasdaq:AAPL – news) portable iPod video player already shows full-length TV programs, but customers have to first download the program from their computer. Its iPhone, which arrives in stores in June combines a media-playing iPod with a wireless connection.
MobiTV customers will be able to decide to buy a show and watch it on the go. They will not be able to store the show on their cell phone, at least initially, and only some phones will enable viewers to pause a show and resume viewing later on, said Jeff Bartee, vice president of programming at MobiTV.
Analysts said the ability to pause a show would be crucial to enticing mobile phone customers to on-demand purchases.
« I don’t believe anybody’s going to watch an hour-long show all at once, » said Seybold.
The service will not have the same picture quality as regular TV, but MobiTV said the difference would be imperceptible on small phone screens.
MobiTV and NBC did not say which operators would offer their service. For $9.99 a month, MobiTV streams TV shows to the phones of Cingular, now being rebranded as AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T – news), Sprint Nextel Corp. (NYSE:S – news), and Alltel Corp. (NYSE:AT – news).
Representatives for the wireless carriers were not immediately available for comment.
Verizon Wireless spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said the company does not have plans to sign up MobiTV, but would not comment on whether any on-demand services were in the works.
Verizon Wireless is owned by Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ – news) and Vodafone Group Plc (VOD.L). NBC is majority-owned by General Electric Co. (NYSE:GE – news) , while Vivendi (VIV.PA) also retains a stake.
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