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Amazon.com Offers Digital Films and TV

September 08, 2006|Chris Gaither | Times staff writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Amazon.com Inc. on Thursday started selling downloadable movies and TV shows, hoping to introduce online movie watching to the masses the way it did online shopping.

Amazon Unbox features thousands of movies -- current releases and classics -- from suppliers that include six major Hollywood studios. The online store's selection of TV shows comes from such networks as CBS, Fox, A&E and MTV. The films, including "V for Vendetta" and "Ben Hur," generally cost $7.99 to $14.99. TV shows such as "CSI" and "Star Trek: Enterprise" cost $1.99 an episode.

Seattle-based Amazon joins a crowded field of digital video stores, including CinemaNow Inc., Movielink and Time Warner Inc.'s AOL. Allen Weiner, an analyst at consulting firm Gartner Inc., said a dearth of unique programming, an inability to burn downloaded movies onto a DVD and incompatiblity with Apple's iPod -- Unbox works instead with devices using Microsoft Corp. software -- make the service "underwhelming."

But Amazon's 59 million customers give downloadable movies and TV shows their widest potential audience to date. Amazon won those customers in large part by overcoming their fears about giving a credit card number to a website and by making online shopping easy.

In addition, Amazon's customers already are used to visiting the site to buy physical copies of movies and TV shows. That might prompt some of those online shoppers to download a film instead of buying the DVD.

"Customers are not DVD lovers or download lovers," said Bill Carr, vice president of digital media at Amazon. "They're movie lovers and TV lovers. Then what we can do is offer choice."

Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media Group, said he hoped Amazon could use its recommendation engine to, for example, suggest his network's "CSI" shows to people who have bought DVDs of "Law & Order," which runs on NBC and TNT.

Amazon has "a vibrant DVD business," Benjamin S. Feingold, president of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment said, "and they have a lot of Net-savvy consumers."

Amazon's movie studio partners include 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. Entertainment and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Notably absent from the service is Walt Disney Co., whose largest shareholder is Apple Computer Inc. Chief Executive Steve Jobs. Apple sells TV shows and short films through its iTunes Music Store and is expected to introduce downloadable feature films from Disney next week.

Unbox includes a few Amazon twists, such as user reviews and features from the retailer's Internet Movie Database website.

Amazon said customers downloading full-length movies, which each take up about two gigabytes of hard drive space, over cable broadband connections could generally start watching them within 5 minutes.

Although initially a hindrance because of iPod's market dominance, Amazon's reliance on Windows-based software could pay off after Microsoft starts selling its rival player, called Zune, later this year.

chris.gaither@latimes.com

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