In another bid to differentiate itself from Sony's PlayStation 3 (PS3), Microsoft this morning announced that it will allow Xbox 360 owners to buy and rent TV shows and movies, often in high-definition. Microsoft has signed deals with such content providers as CBS, Comedy Central, MTV, Paramount Pictures, Turner, and Warner Bros.

"This groundbreaking announcement is a win for everyone," says Microsoft corporate vice president Peter Moore, who runs the company's Interactive Entertainment Business. "It connects our partners with one of the most coveted audiences in entertainment today, and provides even greater value to our Xbox Live community, allowing them to enjoy the games and entertainment they want, when they want it."

Microsoft says that it will begin offering over 1000 hours of standard definition and high definition (HD) programming on November 22, including full-length TV show downloads and movie rentals, to Xbox 360 users beginning November 22. The content includes some exclusives, such as CBS' popular "CSI" and newly remastered versions of the classic
"Star Trek" television show.

Other content includes episodes of "Robot Chicken," "Survivor," "South Park," "The Real World," and movies such as "Mission Impossible III," "Jackass: The Movie," "Superman Returns," and "Batman Forever," among many others.

While Microsoft has not yet announced pricing for the shows and movies, Moore said it would be competitive with existing services. Apple's iTunes store now sells individual TV show episodes for $1.99 each. TV shows will be available for purchase only, while movies are rental only, because the Xbox 360's diminutive 20 GB hard drive is woefully small for holding HD video content, which can occupy many gigabytes per hour. Also, content downloaded to an Xbox 360 cannot be burned to DVD or copied to a portable device.

Why is this a big deal? While other services are PC-oriented, the Xbox 360 is typically connected to the biggest TV screen and best stereo system in the house. That means that customers will be able to able to enjoy TV and movie content, often in HD, in their living rooms, and not be forced to watch huddled over a small PC or iPod screen.

As for Sony, executives there admitted they had nothing comparable to offer. However, Sony says that the PS3 is fully capable of downloading and displaying TV shows and movies and left open the possibility that they could add that functionality at some point in the future. For now, this is yet another major advantage the Xbox 360 enjoys over the PS3, however.