September 6, 2007
Would You Hulu? New Site Gets a New Name, But the Old Brands Are Conspicuously Absent

Earlier this month, I wrote a series of posts about what was then titled "New Site," the joint NewsCorp/NBCU online video venture.

As of late last week, New Site's real name was announced: Hulu. "Why Hulu?" asked the President and CEO of Hulu in an open letter posted on the site. "Hulu is short, easy to spell, easy to pronounce, and rhymes with itself...strikes us as an inherently fun name, one that captures the spirit of the service we're building." Funnily enough, I've heard similar things said about network branding campaigns. What's going on?

What interests me about the site and that quote from the letter is not that so much that the site is called Hulu or even that it is branded as such, but that, as it exists today, that the Fox and NBC brands are completely absent. Hulu is operated by "N-F NewSite, LLC." The very cleanly designed index page features large thumbnails from the top shows of both networks (including The Simpsons, 30 Rock, Heroes, Las Vegas, etc.) but none of these are linked back to their network pages. It is hard to say how Hulu will develop based on what's there - at the time of this writing, visitors can request an invitation for the beta version, slated for October, and view the CEO's letter, Terms of Use, and Privacy Policy. The Terms of Use suggest that there will be forums and advertising, possibly some functionality to share the content, but not much else.

Even more interesting is that two competing networks are coming together to create a third entity that seems to only house their individual programs, but not refer back to them in any way, with logos, links, or in its name. What might this mean, and what could the strategy behind it be?

At first, I thought that NBC in particular was banking on this site as an alternative to third-party distribution through iTunes after deciding not to renew their contract with the online distributor last week, and that guiding consumers to a "third-party" site under its control was a way for NBC to not only capture more advertising and downloading revenue, and to gain greater access to and information about its consumers for research and marketing purposes.

Then NBC announced a partnership with Amazon's Unbox service. The main motivator seems to have been profit margin: Unbox not only challenges more for "rentals" and purchases of digital content, but that they were prepared to let NBC have more of a say on the pricing and special offers. Although much has been made about the fact that content from Unbox can't be played on an iPod, one if not the most popular portable video device, it CAN be played on a television through TiVo, which makes me wonder how audiences really prefer to view TV content - inside or outside the medium of television? Maybe some of both? Joshua Green, C3's Research Manager, will be providing a more in-depth analysis of the iTunes/NBC relationship in the next few days.

It could also be that the networks plan to move the video player capabilities to Hulu, and keep other features, such as cast bios, audition notices, episode guides and the like to their network websites. Currently, both NBC and Fox take users to new windows and different-looking sites to view video content - the logic could be to channel them all to Hulu if they visit the network sites first, giving users much more ready access to programs from both networks, and potentially increasing the traffic to each. However, this would be done on the basis of allegiance to specific shows.

The potential problem, however, may be bringing online viewers back into TV and vice versa. Much of this depends on the information on the site, search engine marketing, cross promotion of shows in different types of media and other factors, but creating Hulu may make it a lot less evident to fans of a program which network they should be tuning into to access the shows they want to see. Likewise, a TV viewer who is looking for a program online may run into roadblocks, or at lease a lot of extra clicks, to get to the content they are looking for through the network sites. This makes me wonder: is the going logic that TV and online viewers are the same people in different circumstances, or different people with entirely different motivations and viewing patterns. Recent developments, to me, suggest the latter.

If you read my posts with any regularity, you probably know that I am very interested in network television branding, and the way online viewing is evolving (ie. New Site, CBS' Innertube, deals with aggregator sites and the like) suggests to me that the networks are more willing to invest in new brands than in leveraging their own across "old" and "new" media, even as the conglomorates grow their empires, and rely more on individual properties as the brand more than on the overarching identity of the network. Will this work? Possibly the goal is a stable of smaller network-like brands, although none of them seem especially "niche." I'm not sure I understand the logic of not making use of or even enhancing a brand identity that already exists, something that is familiar to many people already as "television," on a new platform where the competition among aggregator sites seems to be increasing, heating up, and leaning more towards a TV-like experience anyway. And I often wonder if this means that networks will invest at all in their brand identities in the years to come, and if they do, what outcomes they will be looking for.

These developments also raise bigger questions in my mind around the future of television content and production. Will the networks and studios be brought together to respond to IP issues in a way that enables them to all survive and also capitalize on promotion of spreadable content through audience networks? To put the major aggregator sites and P2P networks out of commission and drive audiences to network-sanctioned and completely legal distribution channels? To develop a set of metrics that are meaningful to producers, advertisers and audiences? Collective proactivity is probably televisions best hope for survival. Stay tuned.