Happy Birthday, Hulu — Do We Still Need You?

Has it really been a year since Hulu launched? Wow. They grow up so quick. To celebrate its anniversary, Hulu is getting social by inviting its much-anticipated (and delayed) friend Facebook as well as MySpace (s NWS) to its party. But so much has changed in the online video space since last March that we ask — does the world still need a Hulu?
Hulu calls this social network integration a “first step,” allowing you to share what you are watching with your friends, compare ratings and comments and recommend content to others. In addition to interacting with friends on Facebook and MySpace, Hulu has beefed up its own profile functionality, allowing you create your own avatar and invite others to join in your fun by pulling in your Gmail or Yahoo mail contacts.

In an attempt to get more people to participate, Hulu is also launching “the Scorecard,” which tracks how often users watch videos, how many video you rate, etc. Users can choose to keep their activities private if they want.

Sadly, what’s missing from this “first step” is any kind of communal viewing, something we are quite fond of here at NewTeeVee. So in its current incarnation, you won’t be able to watch an episode of Heroes with friends while providing running commentary at the same time.

I’ll admit that I was skeptical of a joint venture between NBC (s GE) and Fox (s NWS) working out to anything even remotely considered a success, but for most of the past year, Hulu was the belle of the online video ball:

  • Its traffic grew to more than 24 million unique viewers in January 2009, serving up more than 250 million unique streams during that same month. In May 2008, when comScore started tracking Hulu, the service had 6.7 million uniques and streamed 88.2 million videos.
  • Hulu says that more than 3.9 million Hulu video players have been embedded on more than 100,000 websites, up from 400,000 embedded video players across 20,000 sites at public launch.
  • It now gets content from 130 partners (up from 50), and has more than 1,100 show TV and web show titles, 550 pieces of movie content (full-length and clips).
  • It won’t disclose revenues but says it has grown to 200 advertisers, up from 30 at launch.

The site was also fortunate enough to launch during the most exciting presidential election in a generation, and it received nice traffic boosts courtesy of now-President Barack Obama and a string of hits starring Tina Fey as Governor Sarah Palin. It then capped off its first year with a Super Bowl commercial and media blitz that has been the most significant traffic generator for the site, according to the company.

While most of its first year was a fairy tale, Hulu seems to already have entered its terrible twos. The Super Bowl commercial was a nice touch, but the first three months of this year have also demonstrated how tenuous Hulu’s position is. It may have 130 content partners, but it still has to link away to content from ABC and CBS. Even its corporate parent Fox pulled most of the episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — one of Hulu’s more popular shows — from the site.

Then there was Hulu removing its content off of CBS-run TV.com, and don’t get us started on the whole Boxee kerfuffle that resulted in the media platform and Hulu duking it out in public, each working around the other. Then Hulu smacked down MyMediaPlayer, a homemade desktop app that played its content.

Despite the missteps, we appreciate all that Hulu did for online video. It showed what clean, intuitive site and player designs look like. It proved that allowing embeds of full content wasn’t something to be feared. And by combining both of these elements, Hulu helped show that people were willing to watch longer-form content online.

But will Hulu be a victim of its own success? The premium online video landscape it helped usher in is a far cry from what it was a year ago. More networks are putting their content online as more people tune in to the Internet to watch video. How far will clean design get you when the networks and studios that own the content drop their exclusive with Hulu and decide to go it alone, or require you to prove you have a cable subscription in order to watch video online?

Despite all that doom and gloom, we’re not ones to count Hulu out (heck, they even made a believer out of Om). Jason Kilar spoke at our NewTeeVee Live conference last year and showed that he cares about users and obsesses over details (in a good way). He’s a smart guy who isn’t oblivious to the world around him.

As Liz wrote last year “Streaming web video is never going to be the be-all end-all, but as a happy Hulu beta tester, I would bet it’s gonna be big.” Hulu sure did get big. Now it just needs to show it can keep it that way.