The media frontier keeps moving into your pocket and onto your laptop.

ABC has its hit shows available on Apple's iTunes for $1.99 per episode, CBS is distributing shows on-demand for 99 cents through Comcast Communications Inc., NBC is offering 99-cent shows on-demand through DirecTV, and Warner Bros. is re-releasing old TV shows like "Welcome Back Kotter" and "Growing Pains" through America Online.

"TV distribution has been cracked wide open," said Forrester Research Inc. analyst Josh Bernoff.

Though companies have been talking about video on cell phones and laptops for a long time, the best content has been missing: popular, ad-supported network TV shows like "CSI" or "The West Wing," wrote Bernoff and Jim Nail. Once the sacred content wall had been breached, the avalanche of agreements followed.

Phone companies started the fracas last year, when Sprint PCS Group launched MobiTV, offering 14 channels to subscribers with third-generation cell phones including ABC, CNBC, and the Discovery Channel.

Verizon Communications Inc. launched VCast in February, providing video clips from MTV Network's VH-1 and Comedy Central over its phone network. Cingular Wireless announced a partnership this fall with RealNetworks Inc. in which Real's OnlineTV streaming television service would be available over Cingular's third-generation network, as well as video games. And now TiVo Inc. is offering subscribers the ability to download television programs onto their computers.

"What we've seen is a lot of interest on the part of media companies in the prospect of video on mobile handsets," said Seamus McAteer, senior analyst at M:Metrics Inc., a Seattle-based wireless research firm. "They see there's a fusion of devices capable of playing games, and Hollywood studios are making money actually earning royalties on mobile game titles and that's sort of got their attention."

It's gained some viewer attention as well. In September, 2.1 million people viewed mobile video, according to M:Metrics, which has only begun to measure the evolving sector. And 10 percent of mobile subscribers reported they were likely to view a TV or video clip on their handheld device in the coming year.

The media sector is "quite enamored" with the mobile distribution right now, according to McAteer, because the payment model is already established through monthly phone bills. "The Internet was a network without billing infrastructure, but the mobile environment has a billing network in place that is quite flexible," he said.

Many examples
Studio participation so far has been limited to video game licenses and ring tones. But movie trailers are becoming viable mobile content as cross-promotional advertising agreements abound. And, in what some see as another step in the mobile direction, NBC Universal has inked a deal with peer-to-peer file sharing company Wurld Media Inc. to offer Universal movies over its Peer Impact file-sharing service. This allows users to download digital movies onto their computers for a fee. The movies are rented the user has 30 days to download the movie once it's purchased and then 24 hours after it starts playing.

Here's a rundown of the recent agreements, how they work and what they mean:

  • ABC offers five of its prime-time shows for download onto the iPod, including "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," for $1.99 per episode. The episodes are available for download the day after they air on prime time through Apple's iTunes Music Store. Apple Computer Inc.'s video iPod retails for $299 for a 30-gigabyte version and $399 for a 60-gigabyte version.
  • CBS is making four of its top shows available on-demand to Comcast subscribers for 99 cents an episode, including "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "Survivor," and "The Amazing Race." The episodes will be available on the day after the episode airs on network television.
  • NBC is offering prime-time shows that include "Law & Order: SVU," "Law & Order: CI", and "The Office" through DirecTV's pay-per-view offering, at 99 cents per episode, and through its digital video recording device for a week after the show airs. The shows are only available for on-demand television viewing not for download onto portable devices.
  • Warner Bros. and America Online have teamed up to launch a broadband video network called In2TV, set to launch next year. The programming will start with 30 old Warner Bros. shows that include "Welcome Back Kotter," "Growing Pains," and "Sisters." They will be delivered exclusively through AOL and will be advertiser supported viewing will be free to AOL subscribers.
  • Fox Entertainment Group started offering one-minute episodes of the hit series "24" for mobile phones, through Vodafone Plc. The episodes cost almost $11 each news reports indicate there are plenty of takers and they are offered in 24 countries. They come to the U.S. courtesy of Vodafone's joint venture with Verizon Wireless.
  • TiVo's digital recording device allows viewers to skip commercials and save live programming for viewing at a later date. The service costs $12.95 per month (or a $299 lifetime subscription), and includes TiVo To Go features, which allows subscribers to transfer shows to a laptop or PC. The company just announced an enhancement to the TiVo To Go feature which will allow users to transfer shows to an iPod or a Sony PlayStation Portable device.

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