Can Jack Bauer Rescue Hulu? Or How About Barbie?

Keifer Sutherland as Jack Bauer on '24'

As the protagonist of the Fox hit series 24, Kiefer Sutherland mastered the delicate art of escaping difficult situations. But what Jack Bauer faces next may be a true Mission Impossible: succeeding with original programming on digital platforms.

Sutherland has signed on to star in a web series called The Confession, which will be produced for Hulu by Digital Broadcasting Group, which will also give the series a run across its network of websites.

This is a real coup in the otherwise woeful world of webisodes. The unfortunate truth of the matter is online original programming has a terrible track record because most of it is terrible. Having someone of Sutherland’s star power doesn’t necessarily change that; there have been other former primetime stars that have moved online without moving the needle forward for this sorry sector, i.e. Friends star Lisa Kudrow (Web Therapy). Still, there may be no surer way to achieve a breakthrough than to bank on a familiar name who will have curious consumers checking him out.

Original programming is an easily overlooked strategy online. The brands that are finding momentum online typically do so on the borrowed strength of syndicated TV and film fare, i.e. Hulu, iTunes, Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX). But these companies are all contending with the growing pains that come with not owning your own content. Yet few dare go the route of original programming because it is a difficult nut to crack, and typically very expensive. The latter notion has been reinforced by the failures so many online have experienced because the programs are made on micro-budgets.

But if Hulu could find success with something like Confession, and build a slate of original programs on top of it, think of how many of the question marks surrounding the long-term future of its content deals go away.

Branded entertainment pays the bills. Even before Confession comes to Hulu, there’s another original series coming to the site, Genuine Ken: The Search For The Great American Boyfriend, starting Jan. 18. It’s a fun romp that fans of dating shows like The Bachelor would enjoy. And judging from a preview screening for Ken held in Los Angeles by producers Mattel and Hudsun Media, the series avoid the pitfall that just about every sponsor-driven original program stumbles into: The brand stays out of its own way. Mattel manages to make this about promoting Barbie without resorting to a hard sell.

Study the playbooks at HBO, Sirius. While each of these businesses have their share of challenges, there’s no questioning they both took a quantum leap in value by placing the right bets on their own programming. Time (NYSE: TWX) will tell whether the next generation of brands will have to go the same route.

Here’s a preview of The Confession:

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