SEATTLE - Amazon.com launched a video download service Thursday, ending months of speculation that the Internet retailer would be getting into the online TV and movie business.
The service, dubbed Amazon Unbox, will offer thousands of television shows, movies and other videos from more than 30 studios and networks, the company said in a statement.
TV shows will cost $1.99 per episode, and most movies will go for $7.99 to $14.99; movies can also be rented for $3.99.
Amazon Unbox will offer shows from CBS, Fox, MTV, Nickelodeon, PBS, BBC, A&E, Discovery Channel, Comedy Central and The History Channel, among others. NBC and ABC were noticeably absent on the list of participating networks.
Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures, Universal Studios, Warner Bros., Lionsgate and MGM are among the major movie studios that have signed with Amazon.com Inc.
Walt Disney Pictures, whose biggest shareholder is Apple Computer Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, has not signed on. Amazon's service comes just days ahead of the expected launch of a movie download service at Apple's iTunes Music Store.
Hollywood studios already sell films through other online services, such as Movielink, CinemaNow and Guba, but they haven't yet attracted a huge following.
Details of the scope of Apple's expected offerings are unclear, but its pioneering success and market dominance with its iTunes music and TV show downloads as well as its iPod media players have already cast Apple as a leading competitor.
The Amazon catalog of TV shows includes some of the same shows already available on iTunes and Google Inc.'s online video store, including CBS's "CSI" and Fox's "24."
Movies will include new releases like "V for Vendetta," "Inside Man," "Brokeback Mountain," "Walk the Line," and "Friends with Money," as well as classics such as "Ben Hur," "Chinatown," and "Poseidon Adventure."
Seattle-based Amazon said the service will work on any Internet-connected personal computer. When customers download a show or movie, Amazon Unbox will automatically give them a second file that can be viewed on portable digital players that use Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media Player software.
Another service, called Unbox RemoteLoad, will allow customers to buy from one computer and download to another.
Movies can take an hour or more to download even with a solid, high-speed Internet connection. Unbox will use what's called a "progressive download," which will let people begin watching programs before they're fully downloaded - within five minutes of ordering for the typical cable broadband Internet user, the company said.
Studios started renting films online several years ago in hopes of combating illegal downloads. Video downloads have grown more popular since iTunes started selling episodes of TV shows last year.
Rumors that Apple is poised to launch a movie download service gained traction earlier this week, when the company sent invitations to the media saying "It's Showtime," for a Sept. 12 event in San Francisco.
Sources at several Hollywood studios confirmed Tuesday they were in talks to sell their films through Apple's iTunes online store. The executives asked to remain anonymous because talks were still ongoing.
One key advantage for Apple, analysts say, is how it can tightly integrate its service offerings with hardware and software - all designed under the same roof - similar to how the company drove the iTunes-iPod juggernaut.
Rivals, including Microsoft and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., are now trying to follow Apple's lead there with their own branded online music services and players.
Apple secured landmark distribution deals with major record labels in 2003, jump-starting the legal music download market. It was also the first to introduce TV show downloads last October, for $1.99 apiece.
In June, Apple officials said iTunes had sold more than 30 million videos and was selling videos at a rate of roughly 1 million a week.