Television network Music Choice will soon give cable broadband customers access to its content and a song download service through their computers — a move that will thrust the cable industry into the young but highly competitive online music market.
Music Choice pipes nonstop commercial-free music to cable TV and DirecTV satellite customers in about 34 million homes, nearly a third of the nation's 107 million homes with television. Through their TVs or home theater setups, customers can listen to dozens of channels of music or tailor their own to blend, say, 20 percent rap, 30 percent jazz, and 50 percent rock.
The network claims it will be the first music TV network to extend to PCs a mirror version of its content — which is primarily audio with the recent introduction of some video footage of artist interviews and concerts.
The broadband offering will be available for cable operators to incorporate in their Web sites starting Friday. Cable companies refused to discuss whether they plan to deploy the service. But analysts say that's likely, since Music Choice is a private partnership of four major cable operators — Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox and Adelphia — along with Sony, EMI Music, Warner Music Group, Microsoft and Motorola.
"This is a potentially powerful tool for the cable companies to fight churn," Gartner G2 analyst Laura Behrens said, referring to the cable industry's ongoing challenge of holding onto customers. "The notion that you can offer this music service piece as something customers can recognize as the same thing through their TVs and broadband is appealing."
Music Choice says about 60 percent of the 34 million homes with access to its music use the service, averaging about 17 hours of listening per week.
"But we're stuck in the rooms where there are cable boxes, such as the living room or the parents' rooms," said David Del Beccaro, Music Choice's president and chief executive. "Now we want to expand our reach into the rest of the house."
With Music Choice on broadband, cable-modem customers will have free access to 52 channels of streamed music as well as the ability to download a song on demand to their PCs through Music Choice's non-exclusive alliance with online music service Napster 2.0.
The selection of downloadable songs will be limited to Napster's library of about 500,000 tracks. Users will also be able to buy CDs through a direct link to Amazon.com.
The offering would be the latest to join the fray of legitimate online music services that was largely paved by Apple Computer Inc.'s iTunes Music Store and has drawn rivals ranging from Dell Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to Starbucks Corp.
"At this point, all these kinds of service options are important to make consumers aware of the alternatives of getting digital music," said Gartner analyst Mike McGuire.
Del Beccaro sees the broadband service as a "stepping stone" to a time next year or later when Music Choice seeks to let customers get the music portion of their cable subscription to work on any home or mobile gadget that can be connected to a computer network and has a large storage capacity, such as a growing number of portable MP3 players, car stereos, or TV set-top boxes.
Instead of offering only live music streams, Music Choice is working to also be able to dump music from users' favorite channels — overnight through the cable broadband connection — to the devices of their choice.
"That's where Music Choice is headed — where we can feed content, even wirelessly, to all these devices," Del Beccaro said.