By Craig Zammit

WASHINGTON, USA: Microsoft has announced its Xbox 360 next generation gaming console will become the first ever console in the USA to allow users to download HD TV programs and movies directly to the unit.

Agreements with CBS, MTV Networks, Paramount Pictures, Turner Broadcasting System Inc., Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment were signed, according to a statement made by Microsoft to the USA press.

Both standard and high definition television programs and film will be available for download directly to the Xbox 360 from the established Xbox Live Marketplace, with 1,000 hours of programming to be available in the initial line-up.

“This groundbreaking announcement is a win for everyone,” said Microsoft corporate vice president – interactive entertainment business, Peter Moore, in the statement.

“It connects our partners with one of the most coveted audiences in entertainment today, and provides even greater value to our Xbox Live community, allowing them to enjoy the games and entertainment they want, when they want it.”

Initial content for Microsoft’s new service will include television shows such as CSI, Jericho, Numb3rs, Survivor, remastered classic Star Trek episodes, South Park, Chappelle’s Show, Real World, Pimp My Ride, Nascar Nextel Cup Series races from Race Rewind, selected Ultimate Fighting Championship fights and selected shows from The Cartoon Network and Nicktoons Network.

Films including V for Vendetta, Nacho Libre, Mission Impossible 3, Jackass: The Movie, The Matrix, Superman Returns and Batman Forever will also be available.

The announcement comes with only weeks remaining until Microsoft rival, Sony, launches its PlayStation 3 (PS3) gaming console in the US (set for launch in March 2007 in Australia). The PS3 will offer a Blu-ray drive, a cell processor and a content line-up to rival the Xbox 360’s.

Though pricing for content downloads has not been finalised, Microsoft suggests that a new release movie will rent for around $US3.99 ($US2.99 for older titles), and TV shows will be around the $US1.99 mark.

No announcement has yet been made regarding the launch of the Xbox Live Marketplace service in Australia, but Microsoft Australia’s David McLean has confirmed the service will be available to Australian consumers.

“We look forward to unveiling the plans for our Australian and New Zealand customers in the coming months. These new developments once again firmly position Xbox 360 as the heart of home entertainment and gaming,” he said in a recent statement to the press.

With movies and television shows now available to the USA market for download, the Xbox 360’s existing 20GB hard drive may no longer be sufficient. Recent reports from various gaming websites have suggested that a 100GB hard drive could be on the cards, with some claiming it will be announced in mid-November to co-incide with the PS3’s official USA launch, with the 100GB Xbox 360s rolled out in March 2007, co-inciding with the PS3’s Australian launch.

At this stage, Sony’s PS3 is set to ship to Australia with a 60GB hard drive.