Netflix, the online movie rental service in the US, has launched a new feature that will allow its customers to immediately watch movies and television shows online.

The new feature will be included in subscribers' monthly membership plans at no additional cost, and the company said its will be phasing the new service out over the next 6 months.

"We named our company Netflix in 1998 because we believed Internet-based movie rental represented the future, first as a means of improving service and selection, and then as a means of movie delivery", said Reed Hastings, the company's chief executive officer. "While mainstream consumer adoption of online movie watching will take a number of years due to content and technology hurdles, the time is right for Netflix to take the first step."

Netflix said the introduction of immediate viewing is part of its plan to lead movie rental in total by adding electronic delivery to its existing DVD delivery platform.

The new immediate viewing feature differs from current services in that it does not require downloading of a large video file, instead files are steamed to the users PC.

"Following a one-time, under-60-second installation of a simple browser applet, most subscribers' movie selections will begin playing in their Web browser in as little as 10 to 15 seconds", the company said in a statement.

The more bandwidth a consumer has, the higher quality the video displayed, ranging from the quality of current Netflix previews to DVD quality with a three-megabit-per-second connection.

Initially, the new feature will offer about 1000 titles, but Netflix says it is hoping to increase this number.

The company also says that most of the major and many independent studios are supporting the introduction of the new feature, including NBC Universal, Sony Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., New Line Cinema and Lionsgate.

In addition, content is being provided by A&E Television Networks, Anime Network, Allumination FilmWorks, BBC Worldwide, Cinema Libre Studios, Egami Media, Film Movement, Hart Sharp Video, The Independent Film Channel, Magnolia Pictures, New Video Group, New Yorker Films, Palm Pictures, Seventh Art, Silvernitrate Entertainment, Starz Digital, ThinkFilm, Video Action Sports, WMG Productions and Wolfe Video, among others.

Netflix said it expects to make the new feature available to all Netflix subscribers by the end of June. The hours available for instant watching will vary based on subscribers' monthly plans. For example, subscribers on the entry-level $5.99 plan will have 6 hours of online movie watching per month and subscribers on Netflix's most popular plan, $17.99 for unlimited DVD rental and three discs out at a time, will have 18 hours of online movie watching per month.

No word as yet as to whether it will be available to UK residents.

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