The most ambitious attempt by television companies to retain their audiences on the Web begins today, and the early reviews are surprisingly good.
Hulu.com, a joint venture between NBC Universal and News Corp., will launch with many episodes of hit NBC and Fox shows and a small sampling of movies, all with one-quarter the commercial minutes of regular TV.
The fledgling company has learned from the mistakes of other TV networks, which haven't been willing to take their shows to popular online hangouts. Most have kept their free, ad-supported shows on their own websites and expected their brand names to attract viewers.
Hulu will syndicate its shows to four of the Web's most popular destinations, plus allow viewers to embed streaming clips or entire shows on their blogs. A "Heroes" fan-blog, for instance, could wax poetic about the hidden message in a certain scene, then let people watch that scene and respond with their thoughts.
"No one in the industry has taken that step," said analyst James McQuivey of Forrester Research, who saw a demonstration last week. "I doubted they had the political will."
Announced with much fanfare but few specifics in March, Hulu was given poor odds of succeeding by analysts and industry executives. They said traditional media companies were reacting defensively to the popularity of user-generated and pirated video content on Google Inc.'s YouTube. And they doubted the giants would unshackle their best TV shows.
But Hulu Chief Executive Jason Kilar, an Amazon.com veteran, said the start-up was striving to combine premium video material with a user experience that's both first-rate and free.
"I really am impressed that NBC and Fox have been aggressive enough to permit this super-distribution of their copyrighted content," said analyst Phil Leigh of Inside Digital Media. "I had assumed the networks would be slow to adapt."
Hulu's funding includes a $100-million investment from Providence Equity Partners, which took a 10% stake.
Along with its debut, Hulu announced last-minute deals to get content from Sony Corp. and MGM. Sony is contributing old shows including "Married . . . With Children" and "Charlie's Angels," while MGM is throwing in old shows such as "Fame" and "The Pink Panther," as well as a few lesser-known movies.
Hulu is easier on the viewer than television-like Web services such as Joost and Veoh because it works in any Web browser without any software downloads.
The site's appearance is clean and streamlined, with viewer favorites rising to the top of the listings. Many classic television shows, such as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The A-Team," are searchable by episode description, as are scores of current programs including "Heroes," "The Simpsons," "24," "My Name Is Earl" and "Saturday Night Live."
Some shows have full seasons from the past available, and Kilar said he wanted to offer new episodes the day after they air on television and make available at least the five most recent.
"The interface is very elegant," McQuivey said. He added that the ability to share material easily would put major pressure on rivals such as Joost and on the TV networks that mainly keep Internet versions of shows at their own websites.
Launching the service in a test mode, the company will allow a limited number of people to apply for access to Hulu.com as it works out the kinks. The shows also will be available through Hulu's alliances with major Web destinations including Time Warner Inc.'s AOL, Microsoft Corp.'s MSN, Yahoo Inc. and News Corp.'s MySpace.
"We'll have access to just about the entire U.S. Internet audience at launch," News Corp. President Peter Chernin said in a statement.
He and other executives are hoping to win over other big television providers during the test period.
Ad revenue will be split among the owners of the shows, the Internet distributors and Hulu.