In the Wild West that is online video, Hulu.com has proven to be a trailblazing answer to how professional content can thrive on the Web. It’s this year’s pick for Web site of the year.
“This is a period of great experimentation in regard to media, in regard to online video,” said Jason Kilar, Hulu chief executive officer, in a recent interview. “You’ve seen a lot, you’re probably going to see even more in terms of various business models, various interface designs. I personally love to operate in moments of time like that.”
Hulu officially launched March 12, a result of the unlikely collaboration between News Corp. and NBC Universal. Normally, such corporate fusion in new mediums doesn’t pan out.
The blogosphere was, to say the least, doubtful. Before its name was announced, bloggers derided the project as “Clown Co.”
“Boy, did we have to eat crow,” recently wrote Michael Arrington of the influential blog Techcrunch.com. He added: “I was wrong. Hulu rocks. Despite ridiculous odds, the company was able to pull off a joint venture between two humongous parent media companies and provides users with a compelling, sexy product.”
Hulu hosts more than 1,000 shows, from “Family Guy” to “Saturday Night Live.” There are more than 130 content providers, not only NBC and Fox, but also Sony Pictures Television, MGM Studios, Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures and PBS. The site’s database of full-length films also has grown.
ComScore pegged its unique monthly visitors for October at 24 million. On average, a visitor watches 10 videos on Hulu in a month, which is good enough to chart Hulu sixth in videos viewed online.
That only garners Hulu about 2 percent of the online video market, far below the leading Google sites — of which Google’s YouTube is the big draw. But many believe Hulu is more appealing to advertisers than YouTube, and that Hulu’s ad revenue could equal YouTube’s by the end of 2009. (Hulu declines to share revenue figures, but says they finished above internal estimates for the year.)
Previously Internet-shy content providers — notably the TV networks — seem to have embraced the Hulu model. Viacom-owned CBS.com recently relaunched in a design very similar to Hulu’s clean, white interface and user-friendly functionality.
“The whole tenor of the conversation is markedly different, in terms of folks like Sony and MGM and Warner Bros. really coming on board once they realized what it was we were building,” said Kilar.
Not everyone is on board, though. Earlier this month at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference, Discovery chief executive officer David Zaslav said his networks would not be putting their long-form content online.
But while Kilar doesn’t pretend Hulu and its new model is yet fully formed, 2008 has been in many ways a banner year for professionally created online video.
One of the year’s biggest hits was Joss Whedon’s three-part musical “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog” (on Hulu). “SNL” clips were enormously popular online thanks to Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression (also on Hulu). And other sites like FunnyOrDie.com and Strike.TV were pipelines for Hollywood pros to try their hands at Web videos.
“Based on the folks that are working with us today, the response I get is what Hulu is delivering for them ... much more than they ever thought it would do in 2008,” said Kilar. “We’re quite bullish about where this goes.”
It’s interesting what shows are most popular on Hulu. “Heroes” and “House,” for example, rank below cult comedies “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (FX) and “Arrested Development” (canceled by Fox in 2006).
“It’s a great theoretical: If 'Arrested Development’ were on the air today, would they have canceled it?” wonders Kilar. “My own personal opinion is no, given the fact it’s our second-most popular show of all time.”
Next year, Hulu hopes to expand internationally. Rights issues — often different by country — have made such expansion a thorny prospect.
Kilar also hopes to make Hulu more broadly syndicated across the Web. Said Kilar: “If we can do it in a professional way, we’d love to be a part of MSN, of IMDb, of Yahoo and a number of other sites.”