Microsoft’s cable play: Verizon, Comcast, HBO and more

Microsoft (s MSFT) has unveiled partners that will be part of a major expansion of content available through the next update of its Xbox Live service, and it’s a pretty impressive list. In addition to Comcast (s CMCSA) and Verizon, (s VZ) which had previously been rumored to be on board, Xbox will also add content from networks like HBO, (s TWX) Epix, Bravo and SyFy.

The announcement is a big step forward for Microsoft’s Xbox, which is moving beyond just being a gaming console to becoming a digital media hub. Xbox Live already had streaming video available from Netflix, (s NFLX) Hulu Plus and its own Zune marketplace, but now it’s adding more traditional TV content providers.

Verizon and Comcast are making their cable content available through Xbox Live, joining AT&T’s U-Verse, (s T) which already allows subscribers to use the game console as an alternate set-top box. The two are taking different approaches in their implementations, however: While Verizon will have all its content available, including live video TV and video on demand, Comcast is dipping its toes in the water by making just its VOD library available.

Also joining are a number of cable networks, which are using the service as an extension of their TV Everywhere websites and mobile applications. HBO Go, the streaming add-on to the premium TV network, will let Xbox users watch every episode of every HBO Original Series on the device, as well as a number of movies from Warner Bros., Fox Searchlight (s NWS) and Universal Studios. Bravo, EPIX and Syfy are among other cable networks that will make their programming available on Xbox.

But it’s not limited to U.S. content providers; there’s a big international component as well. Xbox Live will have content from the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5 and LOVEFiLM in the U.K.; Antena 3, RTVE and Telefonica in Spain; and Televisa in Mexico.

The Xbox Live update, which is expected over the coming months, not only adds new content partners but will also add a new discovery mechanism to help users navigate all that content. The new Bing universal search is voice-activated and allows users to search for the title of a movie or TV show, and the service will bring up all versions of the content you have access to. So if you’re a Verizon user and search for Modern Family, it will bring up the live airing, as well as options from Verizon’s video-on-demand service and available Hulu Plus videos. Having content is nice, but it’s the search functionality that will be the killer app for Xbox users.

The announcement shows a growing acknowledgement on the part of cable operators and networks that their content needs to be wherever the consumer is and on as many devices as possible. A number of them have already accepted as much, putting their shows on online portals like Comcast’s and creating mobile applications like the HBO Go app for the iPhone, iPad (s aapl) and Android (s goog) devices. Creating apps for connected TVs and other devices is one more extension of that.