Showtime to Play in Video-Game Space

Showtime subscribers have been able to watch Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider movies on their TV screens for years. Now, they soon may get to see the cartoon-like character in a video game on their personal computer screens, also courtesy of Showtime.

In a business extension, Showtime Networks will offer operators a turnkey, broadband-based video game service that will allow viewers to choose from more than 500 titles which they can buy and download to their personal computers. The service — dubbed On Broadband Networks and set to launch in the second quarter — will also provide players with some free games and a chance to subscribe to a library of titles they can play at any time.

Separately, for Xbox 360 and other video-game console players, there will be a rental option akin to the mail-delivered DVD-movie service Netflix, according to Peter von Schlossberg, general manager of the venture. Customers in that case could rent a high-profile title, such as the Xbox first-person shooter game Halo, for a monthly fee although Showtime has yet to divulge any specific titles.

Showtime chairman and CEO Matt Blank would not say how much the company is investing in the joint venture with Broadband Libraries, publisher of interactive games based on the children’s book character Curious George. Broadband Libraries is developing a distribution service for digital games and Showtime is steeped in the transaction business through its premium TV channel, known for theatricals and such original series as The L Word and Weeds.

“When you think of Showtime historically, and the type of customers we serve and the things we do, it makes a lot of sense for us,” Blank said. “First, we serve a premium customer who’s used to paying for our product. We have tremendous expertise in generating transactions, and subscriptions, as well as working with cable operators on a local level to market their product.”

The service will only be available to consumers through cable operators and other broadband providers anteing up an undisclosed licensing fee to Showtime. Distributors however will share revenues generated from all transactions and subscription fees, as well as advertising, with Showtime and the video-game producers.

Blank said the network has had an initial round of discussions with distributors about the product, but has yet to reach any agreements.

“We’re now getting ready to go back and start generating some distribution,” he said.

A Time Warner spokesman confirmed talks with Showtime about On Broadband.

Blank said Showtime is hoping the service will help both the CBS Corp.-owned company and operators capitalize on the $9 billion gaming industry, through high-speed Internet offerings such as Time Warner Cable’s Road Runner and Verizon’s FiOS Internet service.

Overall broadband penetration is currently around 50 million households, Showtime estimates.

Showtime will allow operators to rebrand the video game service, with the pay TV programmer handling all of the back-end operations, including transactions and content updates.

Unlike the pay-television arena, in which Showtime is playing catch-up to industry leader Home Box Office, the On Broadband service has a chance to dominate a growing but not-yet-tamed platform.

The service will compete head to head with other cable broadband-based gaming services such as Turner Broadcasting System’s GameTap service, which offers video game titles such as Pac-Man. The year-old service, which charges $9.95 a month, is averaging 125,000 to 150,000 unique visitors per day, according to Business Week Online.

A Turner spokeswoman would only say that GameTap subscribers are up 75% in 4th quarter 2006 and the number of users playing at the same time is up 35 to 40 percent week to week. The company would not comment on the new On Broadband Networks service.

Comcast and Cablevision Systems also offer gaming services that mostly feature traditional card games like poker, as well as puzzle and word games.

Comcast officials would not reveal usage or revenue numbers for its service, branded “Play Games,” which has been up and running since 2003.

But Blank pledged that On Broadband would offer a more compelling gaming experience, with more than 500 video games for purchase and the ability to rent popular video console games.

“There’s nothing like this offered anywhere else,” he said.

Von Schlossberg said the company will feature titles from several top video game producers, although he would not disclose those companies or their titles.

“All of the content providers are pretty much jumping on board because they look at this as another distribution network,” he claimed.

Showtime will work with operators to promote the service both on operators’ Web sites, as well as on other media, such as gaming magazines.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.