French Pay-TV Service Canal+ to Swap Set-top Box for Xbox

Microsoft has struck a deal with French pay-TV company Canal+ to deliver TV programs to the Xbox 360 game console via the Xbox Live online service.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Canal+ Group Chairman Bertrand Méheut announced the deal at a news conference in Paris on Thursday night.

Their partnership will "bring the full Canal+ content to the Xbox" and make the Xbox more of a TV entertainment center, Ballmer said.

"We will soon be on 1.8 million to 2 million Xboxes in France," said Méheut.

By putting TV programming on the Xbox, the companies hope to turn watching a televised football match from your sofa, say, into the sort of social experience you might get in a sports bar or at the stadium itself. They plan to do this by allowing subscribers to gather in a virtual stadium and interact with one another through their Xbox Live avatars.

Canal+ subscribers usually need a set-top box with a smart card containing a secret code in order to decrypt the company's five digital terrestrial channels or the 60 satellite channels carried by its Canalsat service. However, the Microsoft-Canal+ partnership announced Thursday opens the way for Xbox Live members to subscribe to Canal+ channels on their Xbox 360 or via a Web page, and then watch the programs on a TV with their console acting as the decoder: There will be no need for a set-top box or additional hardware, said Microsoft spokesman Benoit Fouillet.

Xbox 360 owners who already subscribe to Canal+ and Xbox Live will be able to enter their existing Canal+ account number in order to watch encrypted programs using their console.

The service should go live in December. Canal+ is expected to give further details of the launch at an event later this month.

Microsoft already carries content from sports TV network ESPN in the U.S., and it struck a partnership with U.K. satellite TV company Sky last year. Further such deals in other countries will depend on local market conditions, Ballmer said, as the position of Canal+ in the French market was unusual.

The launch of the Xbox Kinect next month will open up further possibilities for Canal+, Ballmer said, such as changing channels by waving an arm, or opening the electronic program guide with a gesture.

Kinect is an add-on for the Xbox that detects movements and voices: Players can direct games with it using their voice or body, without the need for a controller.

Microsoft had a beta version of the Kinect peripheral and a compatible rafting game on hand at the news conference. Ballmer declined to demonstrate it himself, instead inviting two younger Microsoft employees to play. "These guys jump better than I do," he said, adding that he enjoyed playing the game at home with his family.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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