Hello, Hulu

Back when I was working in cable television, a friend popped by my office for a lunch date. “Wow,” he said incredulously, “you have a TV in your office!”

Pretty soon, everyone with a computer on her desk can enjoy that privilege, courtesy of Hulu.com, which launched in limited beta this week. Backed by old media stalwarts NBC and Fox, the site features full- and clip-length TV content and a few full-length films from its owners as well as MGM, Sony, Universal, and over 15 cable networks. Additional content partnerships funnel in programming from providers as diverse as Smithsonian Networks and World Wrestling Entertainment.

What promise does Hulu offer viewers? Advertisers? I spent much of the week mucking around Hulu’s beta site in an attempt to find out.

Not Bad…and Not Interactive

Television has long been called a lean-back medium in comparison to the Web being lean-forward. Hulu is a bit of both. It brings lean-back content to a lean-forward medium. While it offers plenty of video-snacking opportunities with clips from shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons,” and “The Office,” much of its content is full-length TV programming. Are consumers ready to snuggle up to the small screen to watch a full episode of “Airwolf”? It will be interesting to find out.

More critically (to advertisers, at least), will Hulu viewers interact with the ads once they’re leaning back — without a remote?

Hulu will be ad supported (or so its backers hope), but with significantly fewer commercial interruptions than you’d see on the tube. Captions on the clips make this quite apparent. If audiences didn’t already know a 30:00 show is really 22:00 of actual programming or an hour-long drama clocks in at under 45:00, they will now. The time codes on Hulu feel vaguely reminiscent of those disclaimers on half-empty, air-pumped bags of cereal and potato chips bearing the legend “Contents may have settled during shipping.”

In beta at least, Hulu is hardly, as “The New York Times” describes it, “festooned with advertisements.” Quite the contrary. On my maiden Hulu voyage, I randomly watched clips and full-length episodes of programming old and new, including “Saturday Night Live,” “The Office,” “The Simpsons, “Lost in Space,” “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “Chicago Hope,” “Family Guy,” “Airwolf,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Arrested Development,” “Night Gallery,” and “Bones” before finally — finally — seeing an ad of any kind. Leading into the film “Master and Commander” was a static message: “The following program is brought to you with limited commercial interruption by Chevrolet.”

Even the programming featured on Hulu’s home page is largely ad and sponsor free.

Two days later, I stumbled on the same lead-in message from sponsors Toyota and Royal Caribbean International on episodes of “The Office.” Nowhere did I encounter interactive video overlay ads (the format pioneered by VideoEgg and adopted by YouTube) said to appear on Hulu programming…somewhere. These small ads invite users to click for more information.

I did encounter one on a classic :30 Toyota spot. As it ran, a polite counter ticked on the top of the screen: “Your video will resume in :XX seconds.” I couldn’t take my eyes off the timer to watch the commercial. But hey — maybe that’s only me.

Hulu offers a variety of formats and spot lengths, including :20 and :05, as well as pre-roll ads on longer form content, not that I found those either.

When it launches, Hulu will collect demographic information from registered users to use in ad targeting. While registration isn’t mandatory, viewers will have to sign up to use customized features, such as playlists. This require revealing date of birth, location, and gender.

Another program I saw featured a classic banner ad for Royal Caribbean above the screen. Pay dirt! “Click here for ‘a foolproof vacation.’ Real Simple magazine 2007,” with the sponsor’s logo. Click. Nothing happened. Click again. Nada. Huh? Three or four clicks later, I realize I must enable pop-ups to get ported to the sponsor’s landing page, a true old-school lead-gen sign-up page for e-mail alerts.

Hulu, you’ve got to be kidding. Get real — every contemporary version of every major browser blocks pop-ups.

Another missed opportunity: Many older programs on Hulu can be purchased. Dutifully, this is noted beneath the clip (“‘The Simpsons’ season 7 is available for purchase on DVD or electronic download”). But where’s the all-important link to buy or download?

Beta. It’s still in beta.

Branded Entertainment Destination?

Hulu’s lined up an impressive roster of distribution partners, including AOL, Comcast’s Fancast.com, MSN, MySpace, and Yahoo, ensuring a wide reach. In addition, content is embeddable on any Web site. It’s quite a thing for major media companies supported by brand advertisers to subject themselves to potential adjacency issues. Should be interesting to see how that pans out.

Clearly, Hulu is working to carve out a niche for itself as a branded entertainment destination; to convey the message to consumers that it’s the home of programming from Fox, NBC, and Sony. Major entertainment brands care about this considerably more than consumers do, often to the brands’ detriment. Search for movies on Hulu and listings read like this:

Fox Movie Channel presents “Worl…
Fox Movie Channel presents “Cast…
Fox Movie Channel presents “Maki…

OK, it’s in beta. These wrinkles will hopefully soon be ironed out. Certainly playback on the site, which vacillated between smooth as silk to jerky and unwatchable over Hulu’s first couple of days, has vastly improved — and that’s on a high-speed connection. If Hulu doesn’t deliver over home broadband on day one, its success potential may be fatally hindered.

The What Killer?

Before Hulu’s beta site launched, the buzz was that NBC and Fox were conspiring to build a YouTube killer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hulu consists of 100 percent commercial (or as they prefer to term it, “premium”) content. Nothing’s user-generated. The site, while clean, spare, and simple, offers nothing in the way of ratings, comments, or tagging.

Hulu does pose a bit of a challenge to the DVR. Sure, there are ads, but a lot less of them than on “real” TV. Time-shifting is built in, and it’s a lot cheaper than a monthly TiVo subscription. Hot shows from the current television season are posted with expiration dates, but it’s understandable why Hulu would want to drive an audience by creating a sense of urgency.

But the online video play that’s really going to have to watch its back? That would undoubtedly be Joost. It’s not just the depth of content and distribution, it’s the fact Hulu enables all this viewing without making its users download a player.

If TV’s your thing and you need a break from interacting with interactive media, Hulu could be just the ticket.

Meet Rebecca at SES Chicago on December 3-6.

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