iPod gives viewers taste of à la carte future

Complete episodes of HBO's show the "Sopranos" for viewing on your iPod? It may come sooner than the television industry thinks.

The Appleinsider Web site reported last week that Chris Albrecht, the chief executive of HBO, wants to make a deal with Apple Computer to deliver its premium programming to the video iPod.

Albrecht’s comments came as HBO and Cingular Wireless announced a multiyear exclusive deal, where HBO will beam clips of HBO programming to Cingular mobile phones.

The shift of television program distribution began in early October when Apple introduced its new video-capable iPod. Apple’s iTunes music and video store now offers customers the option of purchasing digital copies of some television shows for $1.99. Content providers, including ABC and NBC, have already signed on with programming.

For those TV shows not now available at Apple’s online store, fans are learning to do it themselves. Enthusiasts are moving their own favorite TV shows and personal videos to iPods with a $30 Windows Media Center software application called MyTV ToGo. Apple’s own Quicktime Pro software, along with others, allows the same capability on Macintosh computers.

The conversion of video for playback on the iPod is not difficult. The new video iPod can play any video stored in the H.264 or MPEG-4 format if properly sized for the iPod’s screen.

Though Apple said it has sold more than 3 million video programs since launching the service in October, other content producers are racing to distribute their own shows. Several adult entertainment companies are creating video content for the portable player. Bitmax, a Los Angeles company that manages and stores video for businesses, announced last week that its clients would soon be able to distribute their content onto iPods.

Ironically, the iPod phenomenon is coming at a time when the cable industry is fighting à la carte programming. Cable operators argue that the most popular networks subsidize the less popular ones and à la carte pricing would kill less popular channels.

Recently, however, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin tried to tie à la carte pricing with attempts by families to control indecent content. Thus, the industry responded quickly with family-oriented programming packages.

In addition to à la carte driving technology like Apple’s iPod, mobile phone operators are making a major move to become their own television distribution platform. For example, last week Sprint Nextel said it would start streaming full-length movies to its customers’ mobile phones for $6.95 a month.

Cingular Video, a new mobile service with news, sports, weather and entertainment content for 3G phones, will distribute two HBO-branded services, HBO Mobile and HBO Family Mobile. Content will include original material plus clips from HBO shows, comedy specials and boxing, as well as additional content created for cell phones.

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