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Video Site Hulu Rolls into Beta

hulu beta smallFew companies are victims of more pre-launch scrutiny than Hulu.  The NBC/Universal and News Corp joint venture has been derided as too little too late.  Some have called it a YouTube killer. Others’ have called it a bad joke.  It’s been challenged as an impossible, ill-conceived dream. The video site has even but mocked with the literally intended nickname Clown Co.   … and all that is without putting forth a single service or feature for critics to feed on.

Today that changes. With the launch of an invitation-only public Beta, Hulu will finally face critics head-on.  At last, the questions, all theoretical until now, are up for measurement.  

•Can Hulu build a destination web site? Draw an audience?
•Will they (alone or together with MySpace) knock YouTube off its perch? Can they be the iTunes to YouTube’s original Napster?
•Can a company managed and owned by two rivals truly unite against a common enemy or will Hulu go the route of Movielink – destined for a fire-sale or worse a few years down the road? (Movielink was acquired by Blockbuster for pennies on the dollar)

Limited by Hulu’s Invitation-Only and Beta status it will probably be a few months before all the facts are in but those are questions for the Jury of analysts and audience to consider.  Then there can be a fair verdict. 
For now, it’s first glances; opening statements. But on a prima facie look? It’s a positive start.

Screen captures and press materials show a site with a clean intuitive layout, a look that’s crisp and minimalist.

In available content Hulu looks strong.   Contrary to initial expectations the site will not be just a two horse town.  While the content libraries of NBC/Universal and Fox feature prominently, Hulu has also sought out additional depth through 3rd party licenses with Sony Pictures Television and MGM.  At least 40 Sony TV programs are represented. It’s also possible that Warner Brother’s content could be in the works too. That adds to a mix which already includes the assorted cable and film properties of both News Corp and NBCU:  that is more than 15 cable networks (FX, USA, Bravo, Sci Fi, Oxygen etc), four film studios (MGM, Sony, Fox and Universal), and two major network stations (NBC and Fox).    For TV content online in one place, that’s unrivaled depth (even if at the start only a limited number of programs from the varying sources is likely). [Note: A detailed list of Hulu initial programming can be found here]

For viewing, where the prognosis is a little more uncertain, Hulu also looks promising. The site puts a premium on flexibility both in where you view their content and how.  From the start, like popular video sharing sites (and differing from most TV Network offerings to date) Hulu video’s can be embedded in personal sites, shared via email, or watched in a browser based player which is getting advance billing for being well designed, even elegant. 

Mashups and other Web 2.0 concepts may feature as well. According to published materials “You can even choose to share the entire video or just one scene. By selecting the share or embed feature, you have the option of selecting your own start and stop point in a video to create your own fun video clips.” That’s a level of functionality well beyond any network TV offering so far.

In audience reach, Hulu is also taking a multi faceted approach. Rather than trying to drive traffic to a single site, Hulu is instead being much more pragmatic. Their plan is to reach audience wherever they are. Distribution partnerships are in place with Comcast, AOL, Yahoo, MSN and MySpace.  Customized video players are found on each of the sites.

The key to Hulu is advertising. The video content is free. They make their paychecks off in-roll advertising – so the more reach they have the bigger the ad audience. The test will be whether they can balance their copyright protection needs against widespread distribution, deep content and a high level user experience (based on good technology and where the ads don’t bother viewers). Those are not trivial challenges but if Hulu can handle them, odds of success will be higher.

Feature to feature comparisons with other video sites will come once more information is available. A verdict will wait for more facts. But for now at least, there are finally facts to talk about.  Hulu’s not just fodder for speculation anymore.

Related Content:
•What’s in a name: NBC/News Corp Joint Venture re-named Hulu
Hulu takes $100m Private Equity Investment
Jason Kilar Signs as Hulu CEO
The Hulu Blog
The Hulu Program Guide

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