Let the HULU spin begin!

New York Times writer Brad Stone rightly set the stage with his summary of hulu.com’s private beta launch today:

Since March, when the broadcasters announced their joint effort to bring free, ad-supported television shows to the Web, critics have pounced, predicting the venture would be doomed by diverging agendas, technical challenges and an all-powerful enemy: YouTube.

Skeptical bloggers even slapped Hulu with a derisive moniker: “Clown Co.”

Now the defense is ready to present its case.

As any viewer of “Law and Order” will tell you, the defense is often not about guilt or innocence, but about the presentation of reasonable doubt. That’s what hulu has done with its highly-controlled press presentations on this, the launch of its private beta.

The NYT header says it best: “Hulu Readies Its Online TV, Dodging the Insults.” Over at TechCrunch, one of the site’s biggest pre-launch critics, the headline is just the way hulu wants it: “Hulu Launches Private Beta, Makes Very Good First Impressions.”

hulu.com logoSince I’ve been one of those critics — not of the presentation but of the strategy — I’ll admit that I’m naturally going to be skeptical of what I’m reading. Launching in private beta means you invite some people in to kick the tires. I’ve found nothing yet today from any such person, which means all of this positive coverage is coming from the information and screen grabs that hulu is feeding them. That said, everything looks very nice on the surface. The videos look well-organized. The player is portable, and they’re touting the ability of users to clip programs and embed those clips elsewhere. These are textbook unbundled media tactics, and they should help spread the monetized videos across the Web.

(You can view hulu vids via AOL Video. If this is the best they can do, it’s not saying much.)

There are two problems immediately. One, the videos don’t play anywhere except in the U.S. This is the result of trying to provide an application that lives by all the industry’s rules. Rights, you know. Secondly, the television shows that are offered stay online only five weeks. So think about this for a minute. Why would anybody embed a hulu clip if it couldn’t be seen in other countries and would disappear after five weeks?

The idea of a portal for “legal” videos is a good one, but 1.) all content creators must play in the same space, and 2.) the reach must parallel that of the Web itself. Hulu may work these things out eventually, but right now, those are big concerns.

Moreover, hulu further erodes the already damaged network-affiliate arrangement by making first-run show videos available after midnight, Hawaii time (nice).

In the Times article, NBCU head Jeff Zucker goes out of his way to position hulu as an entity separate from NBCU, and this will either be its greatest strength or its biggest weakness:

“At a minimum it’s another way for us to offer our content to users and get paid for it,” Mr. Zucker said. “If the site itself does well, that will be gravy on top of it.”

This distancing himself from hulu is interesting, because it was Zucker who made the original announcements and led the original cheerleading. So now hulu is just another company that’s distributing content created by NBCU, which means if it crashes and burns, it was THEIR fault. Nice.

But this isn’t what we get from NewsCorp president Peter Churnin, who takes credit for the idea in the Times article and is a bit defensive about the criticism. “I think there’s a snarky desire to say this is big dumb media and this is a big dumb joint venture,” he said, adding that he thought of the idea as a way to distribute Fox programming. So is it a joint venture or a stand-alone company?

I guess it’s both, but the question is important in judging its viability from here. If it’s a stand alone business, will it be able to sustain itself without more investment money when the costs go up? That’s a fairly significant issue. If it’s a joint venture, then NBC and NewsCorp will foot the bills, and then it becomes just bad strategy and a drain on resources.

There is one distribution partner in this that really intrigues me, and that is MySpace. If hulu is to succeed, it would help to be THE application that exposes this content to people who don’t already watch it, and that basically is the definition of MySpace’s core demos.

Stay tuned.

Comments

  1. thedetroitchannel says

    yeah, i don’t know why they wait until “after midnight hawaii time”- the only thing with more dust on it than the tv set over here are the ceiling fans.

    (did i mention i’m a clean freak?)

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