Television network, meet social network. Hulu, the online video lovechild of Fox and NBC, announced Thursday the addition of Hulu Friends, which gives users the opportunity to set up profiles, share favorite episodes of hit shows like “24” or “The Office” and leave Facebook-style updates on each other’s pages.
In fact, Hulu Friends allows integration with Facebook, MySpace, Digg and Del.icio.us, along with Gmail, Yahoo Mail and Hotmail, as the major media content providers working with Hulu look to pull more community-building opportunities within its own borders.
The announcement may also explain the recent moves by Hulu to end content-providing agreements with online media companies Boxee and TV.com, which are already giving their users the chance to go social regarding what they watch on their PCs.
Hulu’s Social Business Model
When it comes to online video, and cultural touchstones like hit TV shows, “people like communities, they like to share what they’re downloading,” Mukul Krishna, digital media analyst at Frost & Sullivan told TechNewsWorld. “Adding community features is what Hulu is looking at in terms of building a much higher eyeball base.”
That means agreements with Boxee and TV.com had to go by the wayside. “These media companies are trying to protect their investments. They don’t want the content diluted in any form, so they’re trying to create their own spaces, not only to monetize but to glean whatever information they can about users’ likes and dislikes.”
A possible result: Fox and NBC network executives who spend millions on producing pilot episodes, only to watch them die on the ratings vine after their first run, may be getting access to the world’s cheapest focus group, Krishna said. “What the users are generating is feedback to that content. Hulu provides them a community of like-minded people to get together with, and this is perfect for the networks. They get a central repository for a lot of market intelligence on these shows. To an extent, they (network programmers) can figure out what the buzz is from their viewship, and start taking their programming in that direction, seeing if it aligns with what they’re hearing from the market.”
Narrowing the PC/TV Gap
Hulu’s move is riding the wave of social network/TV viewing integration, said Jason Blackwell, senior analyst with ABI Research’s digital home group. He points to this week’s announcement by Verizon that it would allow third-party developers to create widgets for its fiber-to-home TV service FiOS as more evidence; Verizon has already announced Twitter and Facebook FiOS TV applications at various levels of development.
“People are comfortable with all this on a PC, they’re used to dealing with friends as they surf,” Blackwell told TechNewsWorld. “I guess you could say in that fashion of sharing information, ideas, what they’re doing — it’s a natural extension to bring that to the TV viewing experience.”
TV executives are also wondering about the targeted advertising mashups that may take place when you mix online viewing and social networks. “If you’re developing a community around this particular show, it’s a good opportunity to use targeted ads,” Blackwell said. “A lot of times with social networking sites, people come back several times a day to check in for updates, so you get repeat customers. People are constantly checking to see what friends have updated.”
Networks — Be Careful What You Wish For
Network executives may be asking for Jack Bauer-style trouble by inviting more feedback, Krishna says. A show riding high in the ratings is one thing; cancel a show that’s built an online cult following and fans will fire off nasty comments and boycott threats — on your own Web-based platform. “It’s about not listening to users. The classic case in point was when Fox had canceled ‘Firefly’ (Joss Whedon’s sci-fi western) and all the fans got together and complained.” Next thing you know, Whedon is directing a theatrical version of his show, “Serenity,” that did decent box office.
Social networks may also provide greater interactivity when it comes to fan involvement with a show’s storyline. “It might even come to a situation where you have a large enough community for a Hulu show, and they might be given a chance to talk about how you want a series to end. It could drive up ratings when people [feel] involved with the final outcome of what they’re seeing,” Krishna said.