Hulu Debuts to Meet Foes and Find Friends

The long-awaited and much-derided NBC (GE) and News Corp (NWS) joint venture Hulu will make a somewhat public debut this week, opening up a private beta tonight of its web video service and initiating distribution of its movies, TV shows, and mashups on AOL (TWX), Comcast (CMCSA), MSN (MSFT), MySpace, and Yahoo (YHOO). And while it may not live up to its billing as a “YouTube killer,” Hulu is as different as a web video service could possibly be from the market leader. [digg=http://digg.com/tech_news/Hulu_Launches_Should_YouTube_Be_Worried]

After a series of pushed back launch dates, Hulu is crossing the starting line before the end of its promised deadline of October of 2007. The company also cut some last-minute deals over the weekend, adding Sony television shows only at Hulu.com and MGM TV shows and movies throughout its distribution network.

Hulu has a number of weaknesses. First of all, it is only offering web-based advertising-supported streaming. Its co-founder, NBC, is actually gearing up to offer an ad-supported video download service of its own called NBC Direct this fall. It’s also shunning content that’s not from big media as well as significant opportunities for viewers to participate (the best we get is thumbs up versus thumbs down, written reviews, and playlists).

However, Hulu has a great library of old and new content presented in what seemed to be, in a WebEX demo, an unencumbered and easy-to-use interface. Best of all, viewers are given the tools to embed full-length episodes and movies wherever they want around the web. Click here for the full list (well, mostly full, it was sent prior to Sony and MGM joining). Offerings include full episodes (including archives) from programs such as Battlestar Galactica, Hill Street Blues, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. New shows are added at midnight Hawaii time on the day after they air.hulu_player_page1.jpg

There are also a very small number of movies available, including The Blues Brothers, Sideways, and The Breakfast Club — but no Borat and Little Miss Sunshine as initially promised. And as a weak acknowledgment of the flexibility and creativity of online content, Hulu has enlisted film school students to edit together mashups of its content; one featured clip combines various times Homer Simpson has said “D’oh.”

Ad units we saw during a demo included 5-second prerolls, banners, overlays, and 30-second midroll ads. Hulu CEO Jason Kilar said Hulu would use 25 percent as much advertising as broadcast norms, and promised it wouldn’t employ the annoying trick of jamming up commercial volume to get us to pay attention. For distribution partners such as Comcast, Yahoo, and AOL, Hulu has remade its Flash player to look like theirs. Hulu serves advertising in and around a video and shares revenue with content providers, Hulu, and distribution partners in that order (here’s what sounds like a reasonable description of the breakdown).

Hulu, which has $100 million in funding from Providence Equity Partners, will let in thousands of private beta testers this week, and tens of thousands each week thereafter, said Kilar. Beta testers will not be given additional invites; the way to register is through the official Hulu site. However, viewers will be able to find much of the content on distribution partner sites starting this week. In a “few months” Kilar said the beta would be fully open to the public.

So what should we think of Hulu? It’s not really a media company. It’s more a technology company with crazy parents and an unwieldy amount of cash.

hulu_video_player_share.jpgKilar, true to his roots in the tech industry at Amazon.com (AMZN), likes most of all to talk about the web site’s clarity and lack of clutter. Indeed, the service’s most innovative feature allows users to email and embed anything from a full episode or movie, as mentioned above, to a single shot or scene, via a nice little slider interface (click on the thumbnail at left for a screenshot).

But Hulu can’t avoid the trappings of big media. The company is tied up in a contradictory situation, where it’s chartered to have web-wide distribution while trying to maintain tight control over the user experience wherever it goes. Kilar declined to comment on NBC content being pulled from YouTube in advance of the Hulu launch. “It’s up to NBC how they manage their intellectual property,” he said.

And that really cuts to the heart of the matter: Hulu is a web service with privileged access to content provided by its creators, but it doesn’t have access to many of the important decisions affecting it. Long before the project had a name or a CEO, “NewSite” had both hype and haters. It may be a tad late to the party, but now Hulu will finally get to have users of its own decide for themselves whether it’s worthwhile. For its own sake, we hope Hulu is generous with those beta invites.

Previous coverage of Hulu:

Big Media vs YouTube & Google: Smart or Not.
NBC confirms pulling YouTube content for Hulu
No more NBC shows on iTunes
Mad Money & Battle For The 10th Spot
NewCo now has new CEO
Is NewCo really worth a billion dollars?
NewCo: Nuts & Bolts from an Insider.

Update: Commenters indicate that they are unable to access the site’s content, which is available on AOL already, outside the United States. We got our invite while we were sleeping so we’ll get you a full review later today.

Update 2: Screenshots and notes from our Hulu walkthrough here.

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