Hulu Hoopla Heightens With Public Beta

NBC Universal and News Corp. have launched a beta version of Hulu, an advertising-driven Web site where users can view for free television shows, clips and movies.

Currently available only to those who are invited after sending in applications, Hulu is presenting full-length versions of hit programs including “The Office,” “Prison Break,” “The Simpsons” and “Heroes.”

Additionally, the site is offering many classic TV shows such as “Arrested Development,” “Miami Vice,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The A-Team.” Feature films included in the beta launch are “Conan the Barbarian,” “Sideways” and “The Blues Brothers.”

The site is surprising many observers who had questioned its viability, Sterling Market Intelligence Principal Greg Sterling said.

“So far, I think it’s being well received,” Sterling told the E-Commerce Times. “The quality and the variety of content looks pretty good and pretty extensive. So, I think that they’ve kind of surprised some people who were ready to totally write it off.”

Spread it Around

By interspersing the videos with pre-roll, mid-roll and other forms of short online advertising, NBC Universal and News Corp. are able to offer the programming free of charge.

In addition to being viewable at its own site, Hulu is partnering with AOL, Comcast, MSN, MySpace and Yahoo so the same programming will be available from those sites.

Users can grab and embed episodes for use on their own blogs or Web sites, allowing them to share their favorite Hulu clips with others.

The decision to make it easy for Hulu users to grab and embed content from the site is an innovative way for the company to boost ad revenue, Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey said.

“Hulu’s launch has shown that major media players are committed to the ad-supported online viewing model ABC pioneered nearly two years ago,” McQuivey told the E-Commerce Times. “Hulu takes it several steps further, not only distributing major TV shows to major portal sites like MSN and Yahoo, but also by making it very easy for average bloggers and MySpace users to post entire episodes of their favorite shows.”

Encouraging Hulu users to share the videos “takes online syndication and viral sharing of TV shows to a new level,” McQuivey said.

Content Galore

Hulu said it has signed licensing deals with MGM Studios and Sony Pictures Television. Sony will provide more than 40 TV shows and MGM will supply TV shows and feature films

Hulu will also offer content from Fox and NBC, more than 15 cable networks including Bravo, E! Entertainment, FX, Sci Fi and USA and what it described as “a broad array of independent, Web-centric content providers.”

Partnerships for content were signed with Reveille, Smithsonian Networks and World Wrestling Entertainment, said the company which secured US$100 million in funding from Providence Equity Partners.

However, the site — at least the beta version — is a one-way street as it offers no YouTube-esque upload capability. Last week, NBC discontinued using YouTube to distribute video clips of its TV programs

“A lot of noise has been made about whether Hulu is a YouTube killer,” said McQuivey. “It’s not. It really has nothing to do with YouTube. Instead, this is a Joost killer and perhaps even an iTunes video mangler if not a killer.”

iTunes video “has been the only successful online download-to-own model so far, and all on the backs of hit TV shows. But if those same hit shows are now very easily found online for free, it makes it even harder to charge $1.99 to own them,” McQuivey said.

Amazon’s “still fledgling Unbox video store suffers in the same way,” he said.

He Asked for It

In a blog entry announcing the beta launch, Hulu CEO Jason Kilar asked for “real user feedback,” noting the site’s developers made offering feedback simple because they are committed to making the service great and will read every piece of feedback.

The site’s “never-ending mission” is to help people “find and enjoy the world’s premier content when, where and how” they want it, Kilar said. Although statements announcing Hulu’s beta roll-out said it is a site that allows people to see their favorite videos “anywhere,” only viewers in the United States are currently able to see Hulu clips, a restriction reportedly designed to protect international broadcasting rights.

Many who responded to the call for comments were unhappy about that.

One commenter, who said he was in South Korea, noted he was the type of person who often expresses his opinions to others. He said he wouldn’t be recommending Hulu. “I think I’m going to be telling my friends that Hulu is a bust,” because it doesn’t focus on “users” and isn’t internationally available, he wrote.

Another commenter praised Hulu’s creators for “making a huge jump by providing their shows available for free on their Web site,” but also questioned the lack of international availability.

Hulu did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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