Hulu, an online video service formed by two media conglomerates, will begin a private test on Monday with two new partners in one of big media's most ambitious attempts to court viewers wherever they spend time.
The joint venture of General Electric's NBC Universal and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, which earlier had trouble persuading other big content producers such as Viacom Inc and Walt Disney Co to join, now adds shows from Sony Pictures Television and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., Hulu executives said.
The long-awaited free, advertising-supported service makes its debut as consumer interest over watching video clips and television shows on the Internet.
Despite Hulu's high powered backers, the service has drawn skepticism among media and Internet executives, who have struck out on their own by offering shows on its own sites and are either selling shows on Apple's iTunes or offering it for free on other.
But these companies have yet to garner the hundreds of millions of viewers on such services as Google Inc's top online video sharing service YouTube.
We are still in inning No. 2 in the whole game of online video, Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey said, employing a baseball metaphor.
Ahead of Hulu's anticipated public launch early next year, NBC Universal has stopped offering its shows for sales on iTunes and pulled its channel off of YouTube.
On Monday, Hulu will offer about 90 TV shows from the four companies and smaller partners ranging from current prime-time hits such as Heroes and The Simpsons to vintage shows Miami Vice and The A-Team.
It will also make about 10 feature films available including The Breakfast Club and The Blues Brothers.
Shortly after the test begins, these shows will also be made available on a handful of the biggest online distributors Time Warner Inc's AOL, Comcast Corp, Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo.
Given that they're late, I have to admit that they've actually delivered more than I expected, said McQuivey.
McQuivey pointed to the site's ability to let users share and embed entire shows or movies everywhere on the Web as surprising features to be offered by a service controlled by media companies who have spent its entire history directing where and when its shows can be accessed.
NOT YOUTUBE KILLER
Although framed in the press as big media's YouTube-killer, Hulu Chief Executive Jason Kilar, a former Amazon.com executive, said the site aims to make it the premier destination for full length shows and movies.
We want to stand for a high quality approach to the content, Kilar said in a phone interview on Friday, who drew a distinction from YouTube's offering of video clips.
Viewers could easily mistake the site for another dot-com start-up: one would be hard pressed to figure out who its corporate sponsors are as Hulu's minimalist design is stripped of network logos and largely consists of a white background with thumbnails of the shows adorning the screen.
Videos are played in wide-screen format on the top of the screen, with an options to dim the entire screen, view it full screen, or as a separate smaller box separate from the site.
One distinguishing features created by a team that consists almost entirely of executives from the Internet and technology industries, addresses an issue that is unique to its service -- the ability to find a spot within a show that a viewer wants to share.
The ability to share video or embed video clips of a funny or interesting moment on a show have existed legally and not for years on services like YouTube that restrict the uploading of videos to ten minutes.
But access to full length shows presents a new problem -- finding the right moment.
Viewers can adjust a slider at the bottom of the video window to clip the exact spot within a show -- a particularly funny skit on Saturday Night Live for instance -- to send or embed on another Web page.
Hulu also confirmed Providence Equity Partners has invested $100 million for an undisclosed stake in the company. Earlier, media reports said the stake valued the company at $1 billion.