By George Cole

Later this year, European consumers with a personal computer and a high-speed internet connection will be able to download full-length films and television programmes to watch on their PC. The service is being launched by US company Intertainer in a joint venture with the Italian new media conglomerate Freedomland.

The companies plan to offer their service in more than 40 European countries, with a combination of subscription and pay-per-view services. Jonathan Taplin, Intertainer's CEO, claims there will be great benefits to downloading films and programmes on demand. "People want what they want, when they want it and they don't get that with a TV schedule," he says.

The idea of watching TV programmes on a computer screen may not instantly appeal to all consumers. But the launch of entertainment-on-demand services such as the Intertainer/Freedomland venture shows how internet media groups are finding more uses for streaming media - the technology that enables audio and video to be sent over the internet.

Before streaming media arrived, audio or video files had to be downloaded on to a PC before playback. Streaming allows content to be played on the fly.

The technology involves compressing content into a small file and sending it over the internet to a PC. Many computers include streaming media player software from Apple, Microsoft or Real- Networks and the system has been widely used on the internet for advertising, marketing and promotional purposes - allowing consumers, for example, to watch a video clip of a forthcoming film.

Now, the increasing availability of high-speed, broadband internet connections is encouraging media companies to create internet services that combine content from a variety of sources to offer a package to consumers.

If content is king, content aggregation is King Kong, say its supporters. "Consumers want good content but they also want lots of it. If they're going to purchase content online, content aggregation will help drive this," says David Sidebottom, senior market analyst of digital distribution services at the research company Understanding and Solutions.

Intertainer's service, for example, includes content from film companies such as Dreamworks, Universal, Warner Bros and MGM.

Last June saw the launch of RealNetwork's RealOne SuperPass service in several European markets. The service includes content from CNN, MTV, UEFA Champions League and BBC Worldwide, all of which can be selected with just a few clicks of a mouse. Subscribers pay €9.99 or €14.99 a month for content that includes news reports, sports updates and a library of video clips from the BBC music programme Old Grey Whistle Test.

"Companies with compelling content are looking for new revenue markets and for companies [such as] Real that can aggregate content and offer consumers attractive packages," says Larry Jacobson, RealNetwork's president and CEO.

Jonathan Crane, director, commercial broadband and internet for BBC Worldwide, says: "We are looking for new platforms to exploit and video on demand is an interesting platform." But he adds that there is an art to offering multimedia broadband content: "You need to repurpose, repackage and be creative when you develop [the] content. Short-form video chunks work best."

Chris Tant, managing analyst at research company Datamonitor agrees: "Not many people would want to watch a full-length film on their PC but content you can dip into could be attractive."

US company FullAudio offers music companies and publishers a content aggregation service that includes technology support. FullAudio has struck licensing deals with music companies such as BMG, EMI, Universal and Warner Bros and has formed a distribution partnership with Clear Channel, the largest US radio network.

In the first seven months, the US RealOne SuperPass service attracted more than 600,000 subscribers who pay between $9.95 and $19.95 for games, music, sport, news and entertainment.

Even more adventurous projects using streaming media are planned. Companies talk about offering "DVD-like" pictures and "CD-quality" sound on a PC.

Nevertheless, the success of streaming media services depends on the fast roll-out of broadband. The Pew Internet & American Life Project says that 24m US homes have a broadband connection, representing one in five adult internet users. By contrast, only 3 per cent of households in western Europe will have a broadband connection this year - although according to Understanding and Solutions, almost a quarter will have one by 2006.

Even with a broadband connection, streaming media can be temperamental, says Mr Tant: "Streaming media quality is good but it's still got a lot of ground to cover. You may have a fast connection to your ISP [internet service provider] but there are bottlenecks. Anything larger than quarter-screen video is pushing it in terms of quality."

Software makers counter that streaming media technology is improving.

Michael Aldridge, Microsoft's lead product manager for Windows digital media development, says: "Later this year, we'll be introducing a new technology called Corona that will offer features [such as] improved picture quality, multi- channel sound and faster playback. It's going to mean a more TV-like experience on your PC."

Companies are also looking at using MPEG-4 video technology for improved picture quality. "We're developing a system that combines streaming with downloading so you'll be able to play music as it's being downloaded to your PC," says Chris Gladwin, CEO of FullAudio.

Streaming media will also appear on devices such as games consoles, set-top boxes, mobile phones and personal video recorders. RealNetworks, for example, is working with companies such as Sony, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Tivo to take streaming media beyond the PC.