Showbiz a major presence at CES

LAS VEGAS — Broadcast television is coming to cell phones.

In a major step for the fledgling mobile video space, Verizon Wireless on Sunday at the Consumer Electronics Show unveiled a new service that will stream full-length TV programs to cell phones from partners including CBS, NBC, Fox and MTV Networks.

V Cast Mobile TV will launch in select major markets by the end of the quarter.

According to network sources, Verizon’s two major competitors, Cingular and Sprint, are working on similar offerings. By the end of the year, all three major cell providers should be providing full-length TV programs to their subscribers.

Previously, cell providers have offered only shortform video, news and sports.

The mobile vid biz has been slow to take off in the U.S., and it remains to be seen whether consumers will be interested half-hour or hour-long shows on their phones.

V Cast Mobile TV will initially launch with eight channels: CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN, MSNBC, Comedy Central, MTV and Nickelodeon. Due to network limitations, shows will not be available on demand. Instead, each net will program its own cellular channel.

CBS wireless topper Cyriac Roeding said his network will offer entertainment and news programs during “primetime for cell phones,” which is typically during the day.

MTV networks senior VP of wireless media Greg Clayman said his three channels would experiment with different lineups, including, in some cases, simulcasting.

As with Internet streaming, broadcast nets will only be able to offer shows they own unless they reach a deal with their respective partner studios.

All nets plan to experiment with advertising.

V Cast Mobile TV will initially be available on two types of phones; users will pay a multisubscription fee that Verizon has not yet announced.

As for the general CES preparations, a record 11,000-plus professionals from the entertainment industry are registered to attend the show, where they’ll not only be courted by a slew of technology companies looking to get their hands on premium content but take centerstage for the first time themselves.

In a first for the annual tech confab, two of the five keynote slots will be taken by big-media execs — Disney topper Robert Iger and CBS prexy Leslie Moonves — who will talk about their companies’ increasing focus on broadband content. Iger is expected to unveil significant upgrades to the Disney.com Web site and discuss the Mouse’s overall strategy online.

Even tech execs will, more than ever, talk about their partnerships with Hollywood as content increasingly goes digital. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, for instance, unveiled partnerships with Fox Sports, Nickelodeon, Starz and Showtime as part of his opening keynote Sunday night, centered on the new Windows Vista operating system.

CES won’t be the only confab this week where tech and entertainment are meeting. At Apple’s annual MacWorld event, which always takes place at the same time as CES, Steve Jobs is expected to provide more details on iTV, a new Apple product debuting this winter that will stream video content from a PC onto a TV.

In addition, numerous Apple watchers expect it to debut a new “iPhone” that plays songs downloaded from iTunes onto a cell phone. Its previous attempt at the market, the Rokr phone made by Motorola and sold by Cingular, has been a flop.

However, despite dogged attempts to sign up more studios, Jobs is not expected to unveil many more partnerships to sell movies via iTunes. Since launching pics on iTunes in September with content from Disney, in which Jobs is the largest individual shareholder, Apple hasn’t signed up any more studios for the service, primarily because Apple wants to pay wholesale prices lower than DVDs. Sources at most studios confirmed they are not yet close to signing with Apple, though one or two remain possibilities.

Topics expected to be hot at CES this year include devices and software to watch digital content at home and on the go; increasing availability of premium content on the Web; the dueling high-definition DVD formats and attempts to end the divide; and new technology allowing consumers to burn secure DVDs at home and in stores.

Gates was to unveil Sunday the long-in-development Windows Vista operating system upgrade, dedicated in large part to showcasing digital content while also attempting to allay studios’ concerns over piracy. Most consumer versions of the software, which goes on sale Jan. 30, feature Windows Media Center, which is designed to be connected to a TV screen and mix broadcast and broadband content.

Upgrades to the software will allow users to watch high-def TV through a cable connection to the computer and allow networks to design Media Center-specific experiences that can be watched on a TV and PC and used with a remote control.

Fox Sports, for instance, has designed an intricate feature allowing users to keep track of numerous games at once. Nickelodeon is putting its TurboNick broadband service, featuring ad-supported clips and full-length episodes of its shows, onto Media Center for the first time as part of the Vista launch. Showtime will sell downloads of its programs via Media Center on Vista for $1.99, similar to its offering on iTunes. Starz is adding its Vongo broadband service, which lets users watch movies on the premium channel for a $9.99 monthly subscription fee.

Microsoft already is working with numerous other networks and broadband content services to enhance their Web offerings for Vista Media Center. While 30 million consumers worldwide have bought PCs with earlier versions of the software, not many have yet connected it to their TVs to make it the center of their digital experience. Microsoft is hoping the upgrades will lead more buyers to do so, giving it an advantage over competitors like Apple, Sony, cable operators and telcos, all of whom want to control the digital living room.

Warner Bros. topper Barry Meyer will appear at an event sponsored by his studio on Tuesday to showcase “True HD,” a new type of DVD offered by WB that will feature Blu-ray and HD DVD versions of movies on one disc in an attempt to end the split between the two high-def DVD formats. Consumer confusion over the two, which are backed by different studios, is a key factor limiting widespread adoption.

LG Electronics, meanwhile, is taking the opposite approach to the problem by showing a DVD player at the show that will play both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs.

Though entertainment has had a significant and growing presence at CES for the past few years, show organizers have aggressively gone after Hollywood professionals this year, as the manufacturers who display at the show increasingly need the approval and interest of the entertainment industry for their digital media products.

“Our exhibitors have urged us to reach out to the entertainment community, and we made a big effort to do that this year with our keynoters and our attendees,” said Jason Oxman, VP of communications for the Consumer Electronics Assn., which organizes CES. “There has really been a momentous shift away from devices to the content and services enabled by them.”

In addition, the technology and engineering Emmys will be held for the first time at CES tonight.

Based on registrations, the expected 11,000 attendees from the entertainment industry rep the fastest-growing industry group to attend the show. Last year, 150,000 people came to CES.

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