Comcast Corp. customers can now watch several cable TV shows and movies over the Internet, a move aimed at helping the cable TV operator manage the flight of viewers to online video.
Comcast hopes that by making the service available starting Tuesday exclusively to subscribers, it can keep them from defecting to rival TV providers or the Internet.
Comcast, which announced the service in July before reaching a deal for majority control of NBC Universal, becomes the first cable TV operator to offer cable content online at no additional charge. Until now, programs available for free online have been generally limited to shows from the over-the-air broadcasters or to older movies.
Other subscription-TV operators with similar plans in the works include Time Warner Cable Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.'s FiOS service.
The Comcast service, renamed Fancast XFinity TV from On Demand Online when first announced, will initially be available only to those who buy both Comcast's TV and Internet services. Those customers will be able to access the programs on computers anywhere, even at a friend's house using a rival broadband service.
In six months, Comcast said cable TV customers who use another Internet service provider will have access as well.
Customers can authenticate up to three devices _ for now PCs, but mobile devices are possible next year _ to access the cable content.
All told, Comcast is making thousands of hours of programming available from 27 cable and broadcast channels. But what's actually offered will vary by cable channel, with such channels such as TBS offering shows the day after they appear on cable TV and others offering past seasons.
Channels offered are HBO, Cinemax, Starz, A&E, History, CBS, BBC, E!, Style, G4, Hallmark, MGM Impact, Discovery, TLC, Animal Planet, Univision, Music Choice, C-SPAN, Travel Channel, Ovation TV, AMC, WE, IFC, Sundance, TNT, TBS and Mi Cine. Networks such as CBS already make some shows available for free; more programming from them will be offered through the Comcast arrangement.
As is the case on cable TV, premium channels such as HBO won't carry ads. But other cable channels will have ads within the show itself and on the Web page on which it appears.
And what each customer can watch depends on the cable TV package subscribed.
Comcast said it will be adding more programmers to the lineup.
Comcast itself owns such cable channels as The Golf Channel and E!, and if regulators approve a deal to buy a 51 percent stake of NBC Universal from General Electric Co., it'll also have control of Bravo, CNBC and other popular channels.
Comcast's own cable entertainment channels, but not the sports networks, are being offered through the new service. NBC Universal's cable channels aren't included.
Some cable channels are concerned that if they make shows available online, audiences will watch it there instead of on television, yet they won't get credit for the online viewership in the Nielsen ratings, which help set advertising rates. Comcast said it's working with Nielsen to address those concerns. Comcast declined to say which cable channels were worried about ratings.
Subscribers can log on through Comcast.net and Fancast.com. Comcast said it's working with other cable channels to provide access through their own individual Web sites.
Some programs are available in high-definition and more HD content will be added. Comcast said there's enough bandwidth to handle HD. Its Internet customers on average use about 2 gigabytes to 4 gigabytes of their 250 gigabytes monthly allotment.
(This version CORRECTS bandwidth levels to gigabytes, sted megabytes, and ADDS that broadcast channels among the 27.)