Microsoft is prepping for a power play in the on-demand digital television arena, and it has 85 million Xbox consoles and an Xbox Live audience of 48 million subscribers to help it break the barrier set up by vanguards Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.
But will watching an original TV series on your Xbox cost you any money? Maybe yes, and maybe not.
Xbox Originals, the Los Angeles-based studio set up to handle the 12 television series already in development, doesn't have a concrete business plan for delivering any of its programs just yet. With an initial programming debut slated for early June, Microsoft is still toying with a hodgepodge of pricing models at what will soon be the 11th hour.
"What's so great and also daunting is that there aren't any real models and we're going to be experimenting with a lot of different ways to distribute," Xbox Entertainment Studios head Nancy Tellem, formerly the president of television programming at CBS (parent of CNET), said at an Xbox Originals Q&A session last week in San Francisco.
Tellem, who helped create "Friends" and "ER" and oversaw programming for "Survivor" and "CSI," is spearheading Microsoft's TV venture alongside teams in Santa Monica, Calif.; Redmond, Wash.; and Vancouver.
"Obviously we can start with our platform. Again when we look at the Xbox platform, you also look at the tablets, you look at the service that we're trying to build...It can live not only on the console but also off the console as well," she added.
Microsoft confirmed that Xbox Live would be required to view shows on the game console. But the company also revealed that a crucial stipulation -- the $60 Xbox Live Gold membership fee -- is still up in the air.
"We're still shaping our model for this, but yes, you will need to be on Xbox Live to watch the programs. Whether or not Xbox Live Gold will be required is still being determined," a Microsoft spokesperson said Monday.
Live Gold is a requirement to use Xbox applications like Netflix and to play with other gamers online in titles like Halo and Call of Duty. Of its 48 million Xbox Live users, Microsoft has not broken down how many pay for Gold or use the free Silver version of the membership.
While it's promising that Microsoft has not handed down a one-size-fits-all model for the vastly different types of programming it's trying to deliver, that puts considerable pressure on certain shows -- like "Every Street United," the street soccer reality program -- that are being pushed out in less than two months' time. "Every Street United" will be aired to coincide with the World Cup this summer, including a finale set in Rio de Janeiro, one of the twelve cities the tournament will kick off in starting June 12.
While Microsoft hammers out a pricing plan, it's also fully prepared to experiment. Series like "Every Street United" will have custom distribution, as well localized language support given the Xbox's 41-country reach. That means it will be available not just on Xbox One and Xbox 360 consoles, but on Windows 8 PCs and tablets and Windows Phone 8 devices.
Programs like the documentary series "Signal Noise" -- which includes the ET game dig-up special in Alamogordo, N.M., titled "Atari: Game Over," that Microsoft filmed this past weekend -- will be exclusive to the Xbox platform, as will the custom Xbox coverage of the Bonnaroo Music Festival this June.
It's still unclear whether any of the series will ever live outside the Xbox ecosystem as a standalone media purchase. For instance, two Halo programs could have massive appeal beyond the Xbox platform. One is the Steven Spielberg-produced live-action series announced last year, while the other is a "digital feature" being developed by Scott Free Productions, the studio founded by "Alien" and "Blade Runner" director Ridley Scott and his brother Tony Scott.
Tellem refused to elucidate on whether the phrase "digital feature" means full-length film or, like the previous Halo live-action series "Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn," an episodic Web series.
"I think as you look at the portfolio of the type of shows that we're looking at, each will be dictated by a different model perhaps, or different distribution plan and strategy," Tellem said. "Unlike our old business where there was only 22 hours of programming and you had to fill slots, it's now a pretty open platform. We're not restricted by formats or restricted by length of content."