• OK, Hulu Now Has ABC. But When Will It Prove Its Business Model?

    OK, Hulu now has ABC in its corner for the next 2 years, along with a re-upped program exclusivity commitment from NBC and Fox. But the nagging question remains: even with all its premium content, fabulous user experience and surging traffic, when will Hulu prove its business model? How that question gets answered will be the real test of Hulu's ultimate success. And with 3 of the 4 broadcast networks now hitching themselves to the Hulu locomotive, the answer is also going to be pivotal to how the industry navigates the broadband video era.

    To be clear, VideoNuze readers know that I've been a big fan of Hulu from Day 1. The site has only gotten better over time, not only with more content added, but by continued improvements in the user experience. All of this has no doubt contributed to Hulu's rapid rise up the usage rankings, landing it in the top 3 for the first time in March, with 380M views, according to comScore.

    A source familiar with the Disney deal told me the deal was entirely predicated on Disney's desire to tap into Hulu's audience in order to increase ABC's online reach. Among other evidence indicating Hulu's upside potential, comScore data apparently showed that only 8% of the ABC.com audience visits Hulu and only 13% of the Hulu audience visits ABC.com.

    To me, three indicators of how much the Hulu deal meant to ABC are the 2 year exclusivity commitment, the redistribution rights for ABC programs to 3rd parties Hulu gained (except for grandfathered ABC partners), and that ABC will allow its programs to be viewed outside of its much-celebrated video player for the first time.

    Importantly, the former two terms effectively foreclose any full-length program distribution deal with YouTube and others. For now at least, ABC will limit its relationship with YouTube to clips only. That's a pretty big call; remember YouTube is the category leader that not only has a 40% share of the market, but is also currently over 15 times the size (in streams) of Hulu. There's also YouTube's relationship with Google, which of course has the most formidable online monetization engine (albeit one that hasn't been fully leveraged by YouTube as yet).

    The YouTube decision underscores my ambivalence about the broadcast networks' singular embrace of Hulu because there's little evidence that Hulu has yet developed a profitable or sustainable business model. I've written previously about the paucity of ads in Hulu (and broadcasters' own sites for that matter) and how this is creating user expectations that are going to be hard to reset when more ads are inevitably loaded in. One of the reasons users love Hulu is because it is so light on ads. But will Hulu's traffic flatten or decline when the non-skipppable ad load is 2x, 3x or 4x what it is currently?

    Increasingly though, it's not just the ad quantity that's an issue for Hulu, it's also its ad quality. I took some time last night to sample a number of programs on Hulu ("Fringe," "Family Guy," "The Office," "The Daily Show," "Bones"). What I found were the same repetitious ads running throughout all the shows, from a relatively small number of advertisers such as Nissan, AT&T and Swiffer. I detected no meaningful targeting (e.g. I saw a number of Swiffer ads that seem misdirected at this 45 year-old male viewer). Worse, there were an alarmingly high number of PSAs (likely unpaid) from the likes of the Ad Council, Goodwill, One Laptop Per Child, American Diabetes Association, etc. In some cases these were the only ads playing during an entire episode.

    Further, there was no evidence of customized ad creative or formats meant to incent deeper engagement (unless you count the companion banners prompting users to click to learn more). Deeper engagement and interactivity are supposed to be the calling cards of broadband video advertising. But the ads on Hulu appear to be the same as seen on-air, suggesting Hulu hasn't been able to persuade its brand advertisers to invest in custom creative to leverage the Hulu environment.

    Now I know we're in a recession, but still, over a year since Hulu's official launch, and with its tremendous traffic growth, I think all of this is cause for real concern. Hulu is being embraced by the broadcast industry as its main online video vehicle, yet it isn't close to proving it has a model that can actually make money. I don't have insight as to what's going on here, but I hope the networks that are exclusively entrusting their prized programs to Hulu - and consequently incenting huge real-time shifts in viewer behavior - do.

    Longer term of course, the networks' bet on Hulu becomes even more profound. That's because as convergence devices of every stripe bring broadband viewing all the way to users' TVs, there's going to be inevitable cannibalization of viewing traditionally done through linear on-air/cable delivery. (Btw, despite much-heralded research to the contrary, anecdotal evidence suggests this is happening already. Just go ask any college student about their viewing behavior.)

    Down the road, networks are going to be increasingly reliant on broadband-based ad revenue as their main meal ticket. And if all that's being served up are digital pennies, nickels or dimes - as I believe Hulu is delivering today - then even all the usage in the world will still leave the networks very hungry indeed.

    Now that ABC has thrown in with Hulu, you have to believe CBS will as well. With all of the networks on board, they're increasingly betting the industry on the hope that Hulu can figure out its business model. For their sake, let's hope it can.

    What do you think? Post a comment now.