Hulu, the closely watched joint venture of News Corp. and NBC Universal, makes its public debut Wednesday, making available legally and for free one of the most expansive collections of television shows on the Internet.
The online video service, which has been in test mode since October, launches with more than 250 television series, including current shows such as "The Office" and "The Simpsons" and classics such as "Arrested Development" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Hulu also provides 100 free, feature-length films, including "The Big Lebowski," "Me, Myself & Irene" and "Some Like It Hot," along with short video clips from 150 television series including "Saturday Night Live" and "In Living Color."
The videos can be watched on Hulu.com as well as on online hangouts where people already congregate and watch video, including America Online, Comcast's Fancast.com, MSN, MySpace and Yahoo.
"Not only have they marshaled so much content, they're going to distribute through all their partners," said James McQuivey of Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. "That's always been the master stroke for Hulu. . . . They're going to put this content on the most popular destinations on the Web."
Hulu seeks to satiate the growing appetite for online video. More than half of all Americans -- and about four out of five U.S. Internet users -- watch online video at least once a month, according to a February report from research firm EMarketer Inc. One in four had viewed full-length television episodes within the last three months, according to Nielsen Media Research.
"Two years ago, this didn't exist in terms of content providers putting their stuff in an online environment," Hulu Chief Executive Jason Kilar said. Hulu has been growing by word of mouth, even though the service has been available until now by invitation only. In the last 30 days, Kilar said its audience had swelled to more than 5 million viewers, as people posted Hulu's video clips on 5,000 websites. In addition to providing TV content from its joint venture partners, Hulu will have 12,000 videos from more than 50 content providers including Warner Bros. Television Group, Lions Gate, the National Basketball Assn. and the National Hockey League.
Kilar said Hulu gave advertisers such as Best Buy, Chili's, Intel and Nissan a way to follow TV audiences online. Hulu developed new ways for advertisers to reach audiences, allowing viewers to choose which ad they'd like to see -- the promotion for a sports car, say, or a minivan. Another approach permits Hollywood studios to sponsor a show, letting viewers watch a movie trailer before the start of a TV program in lieu of commercials.
"We were sold out of inventory during the private beta period," Kilar said. "Everybody re-upped."