MovieBeam Proves a Novelty With Lukewarm Reception

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Between cable and satellite TV's premium channels, Blockbuster and Hollywood's stores and Netflix and other DVD-by-mail services' envelopes, it's not exactly difficult to get a steady supply of commercial-free movies to watch at home. So MovieBeam Inc., is setting itself up for a real challenge in competing with all those sources.

This Burbank, Calif., company ( ) doesn't use a wire, a dish, a checkout counter or the U.S. Postal Service to deliver its releases; instead, it sends them over the usual TV airwaves in compressed, encoded form, using capacity rented from public television stations in 29 U.S. cities. They're picked up and stored by a silver box in your home -- a separate, upfront purchase -- and then made available for instant, 24-hour rentals at prices ranging from $1.99 to $4.99.

This amounts to instant cinematic gratification -- as long as your tastes coincide with MovieBeam's narrow selection. It also helps if you have a late-model high-definition television. For the right sort of customer, this system can fill a niche that other firms have left wide open, but most others will probably look at it and wonder "why bother?"

And anybody who asks that probably won't be motivated to buy MovieBeam's flat, silver-colored receiver anytime soon. That goes for $250, with a $50 mail-in rebate available but a $30 activation fee required.

Setting up a MovieBeam receiver loaned by the company was as easy as anything that requires fussing with the tangled intersections of wiring behind the TV and the stereo: I only had to plug in the box to a wall outlet and a phone jack, run one cable to a high-definition television and connect a separate antenna.

But the MovieBeam installation experience wasn't close to quick between strange delays in its account-setup screens (you must store a credit card on the device to be able to rent anything) and the need to call MovieBeam customer support to get an activation code.

The receiver had no trouble picking up the MovieBeam signal at an Arlington address, despite my ignoring the manual's advice on the proper positioning of its antenna (a flat, book-sized, gray plastic panel).

An "Availability Check" page on MovieBeam's Web site reported that the service was also available at addresses in Columbia, Frederick, Rockville, Fairfax and Leesburg, while spots in Leesburg and Manassas would only work if the receiver wasn't in a basement or the first floor of an apartment building. Fredericksburg, LaPlata and Warrenton, however, were out of the question.

The analog TV frequencies MovieBeam uses, like all other analog channels, will go off the air in February 2009 at the end of the federally mandated digital-TV transition. The company says it can provide an external digital-TV tuner when that time comes.

The receiver arrives with 100 movies already stored on its 160-gigabyte hard drive. Almost all of these titles on the review unit debuted in the past few years; the oldest one dated to 1992 (the Wesley Snipes vehicle thriller "Passenger 57").

This selection is heavily tilted toward name-brand action, comedy and drama releases from major studios, leavened by a handful of documentaries and children's titles, as well as a couple of merely inexplicable choices ("Doom," "The Gingerdead Man").

New releases rent for $3.99 for 24 hours of viewing, with others available for $1.99 each. Most come in widescreen format, but none include the extras included on almost all DVDs (though a handful of trailers and making-of clips can be watched for free).

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