LOS ANGELES — Give T-Mobile CEO John Legere credit. He was the first to call for an end to two-year wireless contracts. Thanks to him, it’s now easier and cheaper to buy smartphones.

But with his latest stunt, Legere’s got a much tougher sell.

At his “Un-Carrier X,” event at the Shrine Auditorium here, which he heavily plugged to his nearly 2 million Twitter followers, he recorded his entrance to a legion of screaming T-Mobile employees via the live Periscope app.

And then he tried to announce something that seemed truly wonderful, until it got bogged down in the fine print.

T-Mobile, beginning Sunday, will offer selected video views from providers like Netflix at no charge. That sets it apart from rivals AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, which count video viewing against the monthly data caps in customers’ wireless plans.

“This could be the biggest thing we’re ever announced,” Legere boasted Tuesday.

USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham reports from the T-Mobile anouncement in Los Angeles that the new “Binge On” service has a catch.
Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY

But there’s a catch.

First of all, the videos on your high-resolution iPhones, Samsung Galaxys and other devices will be displayed in low, 480p standard definition.

That’s way down from the 720p and 1080p HD we tech lovers have come to enjoy.

Remember what it was like just a few years when YouTube videos were presented in grainy, fuzzy, 320p and 480p definition? Anyone want to go back to those days again?

And secondly, only certain apps are part of the T-Mobile “BingeOn,” program. Yes, there’s Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime and 20 others, but missing in action are some of the biggest players, including YouTube, Amazon Prime and the CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox prime-time apps.

Legere on stage Tuesday dismissed that concern, and he played up the irreverent persona that T-Mobile has used to help define the brand against bigger, more established competitors.

Sporting a pink T-shirt with matching shoelaces, Legere held a Red Bull in one hand, shouted multiple f-bombs, made severalreferences to online porn, and bad-mouthed the competing wireless carriers, whom he calls “dumb and dumber.”

During the Q&A, we asked Legere how consumers would take to SD on their HD phones. “Don’t get hung up on 480p,” he replied, adding that customers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, because their devices of choice have small screens.

And besides, he added, “BingeOn,” is a free feature. If subscribers don’t like it, they can turn it off, and return to HD streaming, which of course counts against monthly data caps that start at 2GB for $50 monthly.

One assumes T-Mobile really understands the customers it’s courted so assiduously, and is right thinking they’re willing to swap lower  monthly bills for watching videos that would have looked great on phones in 2007. If other carriers follow suit, the gambit will look savvy and innovative.

His basic sales pitch in his presentations is that the wireless carriers are anti-consumer–“overages are evil,” he said several times Tuesday. 

The event was  held at the Shrine Auditorium, home to many huge Hollywood awards shows, including the Academy Awards and Emmys, with a house that seats 6,300. But the assorted press–about 20 of us–were on stage with Legere, while all the audience seats were filled with over-enthusiastic T-Mobile employees who cheered the boss before, during and after his 60-minute presentation. (See Twitter link below.)

While Legere railed against the evils of his competitors in every which way, he didn’t go all the way with the one feature consumers would kill for–a basic, monthly and understandable rate, without any data charges.

T-Mobile’s latest is a “cheap sales trick,” says Matt Wood, the policy director of Free Press, a consumer group that fights for consumer tech issues. “First you fabricate a problem for customers,” in data caps, “Then you make that problem go away and act like you’ve done them a huge favor.”

On paper, Legere’s latest move does sound great–T-Mobile has found a solution to massive mobile video consumption, by optimizing the video streams for playback.

But the big question for him is whether consumers respond in the manner of the T-Mobile employees Tuesday with a resounding “yeah,” and dramatically increase video viewing on his network, or take a look at the low-res SD video, and then skip it altogether.

Follow Jefferson Graham on Twitter @jeffersongraham

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