Streaming Begins For Amazon Prime Members; One-Month Free Trial

Amazon’s anticipated video streaming service launched this morning with nearly 5,000 movies and TV shows.. Instead of starting from scratch with an entertainment subscription offering, Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) is offering streaming as an added benefit to its $79 Prime membership — creating an instant subscriber base of “millions” and a package that combines free shipping from the e-tailer with digital delivery. It’s also an instant competitor to Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX), despite the lack of matching depth, especially for those of us who already subscribe to both.

For what comes to $6.50 a month, Prime subscribers will get the same shipping advantages we already have plus access to the streaming video across PC, Mac and, says Amazon, nearly 200 other connected TVs, Blu-Ray players and set tops. The notable exception for now as far as I can see — and the one aspect Netflix can play up off the bat beyond its depth — no smartphone or tablets, no iOS. Netflix runs $7.99 a month. (Netflix may not want to mention that Amazon Web Services powers its streaming video,)

At the same time, Amazon is offering a substantial trial, using the video as the hook: a one month free. Details in the release.

Launch titles include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, Amadeus, Syriana, and Chariots of Fire, Dr. Who and Arthur.

Unlike Netflix, Amazon video isn’t limited to subscription streaming. Amazon Instant Video, its a-la-carte rental or pay service, claims more than 90,000 titles, including movies and TV shows. Some are available the same day as DVD release as an Instant option while you wait for the physical disc to ship; some TV shows are next day a la iTunes. This play is as much about selling those — maybe more — than it is about a subscription service right now.

Andrew Wallenstein adds: Spoke with Cameron Janes, director of AIV, who confirmed the addition to Prime should provide a boost to Amazon’s a-la-carte offering. “We think it will introduce more customers to in general and our video offering,” he said.

Janes explained that Prime and AIV were designed to expose users to both services. For instance, a Prime subscriber watching a film can receive a recommendation to watch a similar movie that is offered on AIV. “We’ve tried to integrate these experiences so customers aren’t forced to look at just one part of the site,” he said.

When asked how Prime stacks up against Netflix, Janes declined to address any competition, emphasizing that the new service is more about bettering the Amazon customer experience than anything else. Janes wouldn’t specify just how many existing Prime users there are, though he put it in the ballpark of “millions” of customers.

That said, adding a video layer to the subscription may increase the ranks of Prime as well. “We want to grow Prime and this makes it more attractive,” said Janes.

Prime launches with 16 content partners including studios Warner Bros. (NYSE: TWX) and Sony (NYSE: SNE) Pictures; indie houses Magnolia, IFC and Shout Factory, as well as TV networks PBS and BBC. While the inventory is almost entirely library, there is some relatively fresh material like the final installment of the Dragon trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, which was released on DVD a month ago.

Janes declined to address speculation that Amazon could team up with Redbox, which recently announced its intention to move forward with long-awaited but still unspecified streaming plans. But he was a tad less guarded on the prospect of another partnership, with Amazon’s UK-based acquisition Lovefilm. “There are a number of exciting things we can do but it’s too early to share anything,” he said.

As for the way early word of Prime leaked out last month, Janes would not comment on whether the disclosure accelerated the service’s deployment. Said Janes,”We launch products when they are ready for our customers.”

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