Microsoft has moved into the online television market by striking a deal with BBC Worldwide and All3Media to offer, free, up to 60 popular shows in their entirety via its new MSN Video Player service.
The availability of full-length hit programmes such as Shameless, Peep Show and Hustle to MSN UK's 16 million unique monthly users represents an attempt by Microsoft to steal a march on potential rival platforms for long-form video-on-demand (VoD) content by filling a vacuum in supply that has emerged in one of its most important markets.
The California-based website Hulu, a free online VoD service that offers content from NBC, ABC and Fox in the US, is expected to launch in Britain this year, making available 3,000 hours of American programming, possibly with shows from Channel 4 and ITV. Project Canvas, an initiative backed by the BBC, ITV and BT Vision to supply online video content, has stalled and is awaiting approval from the BBC Trust.
An earlier British venture, Project Kangaroo, a VoD service supported by BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4, was blocked by the Competition Commission earlier this year. The former CEO of Project Kangaroo, Ashley Highfield, left to join Microsoft as UK managing director of Microsoft (Consumer & Online). In February, Mr Highfield said the demise of Kangaroo was a "huge opportunity" for Microsoft.
The service offers 350 hours of programming, skewed towards comedy shows. Drama content includes the 2005 Golden Globe winning production Elizabeth I, and This Life, the cult series which first aired in 1996.
Rob Crossen, MSN UK's business manager for video, said the service could offer archive programming, such as the first two series of Shameless, from outside the seven-day window of the BBC's iPlayer service and the 30-day catch-up period of other broadcasters.
The programming is supported by "pre-roll" 30-second commercials ahead of the video. Commercial breaks are included, but less frequently than on linear television. Mr Crossen said all advertising space had been sold.