News Corp. and NBC Universal are certainly banking on it.
After seven months of preparations, delays and wisecracks about its quirky name, the two companies are finally lifting the veil Monday on their new Internet video service, Hulu.
Hulu programming will begin appearing Monday at the Web sites of its distribution partners, such as News Corp.’s MySpace, Yahoo!, Time Warner portal AOL, Microsoft site MSN and Comcast.
And Hulu.com, which will have additional features that won’t be available at the partner sites, is launching a private beta test Monday. The beta will start with a few thousand users who register their e-mail addresses at the site and will gradually expand its reach in the coming months.
It’s the latest and most ambitious effort by the television industry to reach viewers online. But in some respects, it’s also the most perplexing.
In addition to distributing content at leading portal sites, Hulu is also establishing a brand-new destination site at Hulu.com – not a simple task in an increasingly crowded online video market. Moreover, it will be competing for traffic with its owners’ other Internet properties, such as Fox.com and NBC.com.
Finally, Hulu will be run as a joint venture between two hard-nosed competitors, raising inevitable questions about whether or how News Corp. and NBC Universal, which is owned by General Electric, will play nice with each other.
But such concerns don’t appear to bother private-equity firm Providence Equity Partners, which has just invested $100 million in Hulu. And Hulu Chief Executive Jason Kilar, a former senior executive at Amazon.com, downplayed potential worries about the JV dynamic.
“This could not happen without their commitment,” Kilar said. “I feel very proud to say how they’ve come together.”
Hulu provides a vivid illustration of how much TV network attitudes have changed – and not changed – since YouTube crash-landed on the entertainment landscape two years ago.
While the networks were initially hesitant about making their programming available online, Fox, NBC, CBS, Disney’s ABC and Viacom all do so today to varying degrees. Hulu represents the latest step in these efforts.
Hulu and its distribution partners will feature streaming video of full-length prime-time programming and clips from Fox and NBC, as well as content from sibling networks such as Bravo, Sci Fi, FX and Fuel TV and USA Network. CNET, E! Entertainment Television and Sundance Channel will also provide programming.
All Hulu content, including movies, will be viewable free of charge and supported by advertising. Full-length TV shows and movies will open with a “brought to you by” title card that will appear for several seconds. Once the programming gets under way, a banner ad will rest at the top of the screen unless a viewer chooses the full-screen video option. In addition, about two minutes of video advertising will be inserted every 22 minutes or so.Clips and other short-form video will also feature a banner ad at the top of the screen, as well as overlay ads that will periodically appear at the bottom of the screen but won’t interrupt the flow of the programming. The overlay ads can be clicked for more information about the sponsor.
Hulu.com will have extra features not initially available at its distribution partners’ sites, including the ability to e-mail links to full episodes and whatever portion of an episode a viewer chooses to share.
Hulu.com visitors will also be able to embed full episodes and clips on their own Web sites and blogs. Embedded programming will retain all advertising. It’s a somewhat daring move, given the potential squeamishness that advertisers may feel about where their marketing messages will end up appearing.
All of these features illustrate how eager News Corp. and NBC are to reach viewers online. But in other ways, Hulu also demonstrates the degree to which the companies want to retain control over how consumers view and make use of their content.
For instance, contrary to what News Corp. and NBC indicated when they first announced their plans in March, Hulu won’t enable viewers to create mashups of its programming. Nor will it accept uploads of user-generated videos. Instead, Hulu has assigned part of its team to create clips and video “montages” for users.
Why impose such restrictions? “We’re very focused on premium content,” Hulu’s Kilar said.”We’re not seeking to have a user-generated content service. There are many other services out there. …We want to [break] new ground, as opposed to ground already being served by other companies.”
But shifting more power to consumers has been part of the core appeal of YouTube and other video sites. Differentiation from the competition is fine, but when the competition is eating your lunch in terms of traffic, taking a page from their playbook probably wouldn’t hurt either.
Hulu is still a joint venture exclusively between NBC Universal and News Corporation. It exists as a website through which users can stream a collection of TV shows, movies, and short clips on-demand for free without any limits on how many times you can view each video. Hulu also exists as a distribution network of premium content for several partner websites – AOL, MSN, MySpace, Comcast, and Yahoo – that will display Hulu’s videos for free but in their own branded players. In addition to these partnerships, users themselves form a viral distribution network of sorts since Hulu allows its videos to be embedded in any website and shared via email. Hulu makes money in all cases from advertising, which it displays in and around the videos it serves.
A couple of things that Hulu is not: a repository of user generated content like YouTube or a download service like iTunes Store. All of the video on Hulu is premium content and users don’t have access to any uploading capabilities. TV shows and movies can only be streamed through Hulu or one of its partners’ Flash players, not downloaded to your desktop or portable media player. While it’s understandable that NBC and News Corp. want to focus exclusively on premium content, it’s a shame that we can’t (yet) download videos from Hulu (either in an ad-supported format or for a fee). Perhaps this is something to look for in the future, although company representatives were mum on whether they had plans for it.
As for the content on Hulu, TV shows will come from Fox and NBC, and over fifteen cable channels including Bravo, E!, FX, SciFi, Sundance, and USA. Movies will come from Fox and Universal, and following a deal signed just this Friday, from Sony and MGM as well. Hulu says many of its short clips will come from independent content providers, and it’s also signing licensing deals with others such as Smithsonian and the WWE. Overall, Hulu’s collection is impressive and we can anticipate seeing it grow even more in the coming months. Representatives say that they will listen to consumer demand to determine which shows and movies to add next. Click here to view a full list of the videos currently in Hulu’s collection.
In terms of availability, Hulu as a website will not be available to the public for another few months. Its collection, however, will be rolled out on its partners’ websites over this coming week so we can expect to see most, if not all, of Hulu’s content on AOL, MSN, MySpace, Comcast, and Yahoo very soon. Just when particular videos will be available through Hulu – and how long we can expect them to stay on Hulu – will vary from video to video. However, as a general rule TV shows will be available on Hulu by midnight Hawaii time after they debut on normal television. As another general rule, Hulu will keep distributing TV shows until five weeks of newer episodes have passed, at which point older shows will presumably just disappear from the site.
This is Hulu’s greatest weakness. Try as it might, it has not yet escaped the programming mentality of broadcast television. Hulu still imposes a schedule of sorts on Web viewers, even if that schedule comes with a five-week window of flexibility. But on the Web, five weeks may not be enough. Appointment TV just doesn’t make sense in a medium where time slots are thrown out the window and the available inventory of videos is counted in the millions. Hulu may be limiting its appeal by not keeping all of its videos up indefinitely (who knows when a particular video clip could take off as the next viral hit?). It also will be interesting to see how this limit affects embedded TV shows, which may just stop functioning after too much time. Similarly, movies and short clips will be added and removed from the site in an undisclosed (or uncertain) manner, although Hulu reps say they will try to add movies that are in demand. Hulu will not only have new releases but older movies as well, and only ten movies will be available to start.
Now for the design and features of Hulu.com itself. First of all, the experience is entirely browser-based so there is no software to install beyond Flash player, which you probably already have. Hulu has done a good job keeping the user interface simple and highlighting the actual content of the site. The homepage highlights a given video and lists the most popular episodes, the most popular clips, and recently added videos. You can also search Hulu’s entire collection from the homepage. Other sections of the site list the available episodes for particular shows and let you browse videos by network/studio, alphabetical order, or popularity. On your user profile page, you can create a video playlist and check your viewing history. Both your viewing history and playlist can be shared via RSS which, in addition to user reviews that you can leave at the bottom of video pages, form pretty much the extent to which Hulu.com incorporates social features.
The videos themselves are streamed at either 480kbps or 700kbps depending on your bandwidth, and Hulu is working with Adobe to provide even higher resolutions through Flash Player 9.2 by the end of the year. Hulu’s video player sports all the basic features we see in embeddable players these days: sharing via email, embedding via HTML, video details, full screen, seeking, and volume. It also has buttons with which users can submit feedback directly to Hulu, pop the video out into its own window, darken the rest of the page for better viewing, and vote the video up or down. Perhaps the coolest feature of the player is the ability to select just a segment of the video to share with friends or embed on your website. Embedded videos have fewer features, but users can still share and embed videos that have already been embedded, which should really help to spread Hulu’s videos virally (and make it less popular to embed low-quality versions hosted on YouTube). But, again, if the embedded video expires or is replaced with new content that the embedder did not choose, that could end up backfiring on Hulu.
Finally, some important information about how Hulu plans to advertise. Advertising will be much less intrusive than on actual television. Ads will be served in a variety of ways: banners that display alongside videos, text blurbs that overlay the bottom of videos, and in-video clips that play before, within, and after videos. Shorter videos will tend to have overlays and banner ads, whereas longer videos will tend to play in-video commercials. Hulu says that for longer videos, the total playback time dedicated to advertisements will be drastically lowered, perhaps constituting only 25% of the time you’d spend watching ads on TV. Thus, for every 30 minutes of video, you may only see 2 minutes of ads, whereas on TV you would see 8 minutes. If this is true, then Hulu will certainly be more consumer-friendly than TV. However, that is still probably more commercials than people are used to when watching video on the Web.