Company's answer to the iPod gets upgrade

Microsoft is gearing up to give Zune owners something to watch.

The tech giant has created a shingle that will produce a slate of video programming exclusively for the portable device, its answer to Apple’s iPod.

The move into production is being eyed as a way to help sell more Zune players, but the effort will also create another distribution platform for Hollywood’s creative community.

The first project will be “Cinemash” — a comedy series it has created with arts and entertainment mag Mean — which bows by May.

The eight-episode series, unspooling in three- to five-minute installments, will feature celebs playing the roles in movies they wish they’d landed.

Mean mag had already produced a series of shorts starring James McAvoy, Elizabeth Banks, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Kingsley and Seth Rogen that appeared on its website before pairing with Microsoft.

Like all the Zune shows, “Cinemash” will be ad-supported and free for download.

The planned slate of original content will range from live-action and animated comedy to urban and music programming.

Since its introduction in 2006, Microsoft has struggled to generate the kind of heat around the Zune that Apple has been able to ignite around its iPod.

There are 3 million Zune owners, compared with 173 million users of iPod, the first iteration of which bowed in 2001.

Zune sales struggled during the critical holiday shopping season, with Zune revenue down $100 million, or 54%, for Microsoft during the fourth quarter.

Yet Microsoft is betting that exclusive original programming could boost interest in the Zune; it sees the device is a key component to reaching lucrative 18- to 35-year-old consumers who crave entertainment.

That could especially be true when Microsoft unveils players with more advanced video playback capabilities.

Microsoft only began offering video to Zune owners through its Zune Marketplace in June. While the company won’t disclose the number of videos that have been downloaded, the tally has surpassed expectations, encouraging Microsoft to invest in producing its own fare.

“We’re seeing an appetite for video and saw this as an area we wanted to get into,” said Paul Davidson, lead video and original content producer for Zune.

The videos will eventually be distribbed across various platforms.

Microsoft will initially bow its videos on the Zune Marketplace for download to Zune players or for view on traditional computer screens.

But that same programming will move onto Microsoft’s Xbox Live service, as well as MSN’s network of websites over time.

Deal points will vary depending on the content creator, but Zune will enable creatives to control the rights to their work and pursue other opportunities — film, TV or other deals, for example — once that window of time has elapsed.

“We’re not talking network TV dollars,” Davidson said of the money it will pay content creators or what advertisers will shell out. “The costs are much lower than anything else. But it’s a good opportunity to get exposure from an audience that appeals to them. We’re saying, ‘If it works for our demo, let’s go try it.'”

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