Web-Video Players Give First-Run Content a Spin

Original programming from over-the-top companies Netflix and Amazon generated most of the category’s headlines in 2013, but digital companies Hulu and Crackle look to flip the script this year with their own starstudded original drama and comedy series.

Hulu, owned by The Walt Disney Co., Fox and NBCUniversal, expects to make six originally produced series available to its Hulu Plus subscribers this year, including Deadbeat, a supernatural-themed coproduction with Lionsgate that features Cat Deeley (So You Think You Can Dance) and Brandon T. Jackson (Tropic Thunder), according to Charlotte Koh, head of development for Hulu Originals.

The $7.99 Hulu Plus ser vice — through which more than 5 million subscribers have access to Hollywood movies and next-day repeats of TV series including Fox’s Sleepy Hollow — green-lit second seasons of original dramedy series The Wrong Mans, the Seth Meyersproduced animated superhero series The Awesomes, Hispanic-targeted drama East Los High and Western- themed comedy Quick Draw.

Hulu also will offer some 20 series it has acquired exclusively from distributors both domestically and internationally, including Scandinavian drama The Bridge, the inspiration for the FX series of the same name.

Hulu would not disclose specific viewership numbers for its scripted content, but said the originals help build awareness of the brand to consumers and TV writers.

“The roots for Hulu have been catching up on the best of last night’s TV on the networks,” Koh said. “Our evolution is to move toward being a destination for consumers with first-run content. Whether that’s acquired, or things that we make, it’s important to have the conversation switch around us to say this is place to see things that other people don’t have.”

Sony Pictures Television-owned service Crackle will serve up several scripted series including season renewals of freshman series Cleaners, an action series starring David Arquette (Scream) and Gina Gershon (Showgirls); and sophomore show Chosen, a drama series starring Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill). The service also features poplar reality shows such as Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, starring Jerry Seinfeld, and later this year will launch its first fulllength movie, Joe Dirt 2, a sequel to the 2001 comedy film.

Eric Berger, executive vice president of digital networks for Sony and general manager of Crackle, said the company is hoping to improve on its 20 million monthly unique viewers through new and original programming.

Along with the series, the free, advertising-based Crackle also offers a library of theatrical films and full seasons of such television shows as The Shield, Damages and Seinfeld.

“Like many networks original programming is a point of differentiation, and if they like the content it’s a way to introduce the brand and introduce people to Crackle,” Berger said. “For a first season of Chosen, about 50% of the people who watched the show were new to Crackle, and about 50% of those people who watched Chosen went on to watch other content on Crackle. So it’s one example of why it’s a great way for us to introduce people to our network and our service.”

Koh and Berger believe the success and acclaim Netflix generated for its original shows, House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, has been a benefit to Hulu and Crackle.

“Anytime the space is growing, it’s a good thing,” Berger said. “It was only a little while ago that the idea of creating high-quality programming for digital platforms didn’t exist, or was looked at as different. Consumers are becoming very comfortable with watching content through streaming devices and on the TV in particular, and advertisers are getting more comfortable with that as well.”

Added Koh: “It’s the idea that a high tide raises all boats — it really helps change the consumer perception that on-demand and online is a good place for first-run content.”

Over-the-top programmers Hulu and Crackle will join the original programming fray this year with slates of new series.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.