Hulu hopes

Television networks and movie studios are accustomed to the power and control that come with owning the exclusive rights to some of the most popular entertainment on Earth. And yet online, their primacy in the entertainment universe has gone largely unrecognized. Consumers by the millions download illegal copies of films and TV shows, and the most popular video sites mix amateur productions with snippets from the networks. Those sites have succeeded not with the best content, but with the best context.

This week, News Corp. and NBC Universal took the wraps off a joint venture that aims to reclaim some of the power that networks and studios have lost online. Called Hulu, the company has an appealing website (accessible by invitation only for now) offering free, full-length TV episodes, movies and video clips from NBC, Fox and more than two dozen other sources. Anything on can be redistributed, in whole or in part, through the Web or e-mail. Meanwhile, Hulu is also offering its video wares through AOL, MySpace and a handful of other major sites.

But why bother creating a whole new distribution arm when YouTube and MySpace are already drawing millions of viewers? One reason is to get rid of the middleman you don’t own (e.g., YouTube) in favor of one you do. Hulu’s founders also believe that they can be a more reliable source than the sites offering amateur videos and bootlegs. These assumptions are worth testing, for all of Hollywood’s sake. Unfortunately for Hulu, though, it doesn’t have a comprehensive library of content, and what it has will stay on the site for only a few weeks. Its distribution partners include few of the leading sites for online video and none of the file-sharing networks that have become major outlets for movie and TV bootlegs.

Most important, Hulu isn’t giving users the power they enjoy on YouTube and MySpace, which may be the most important factor in such sites’ success. Users not only supply videos for those sites, they curate them and provide the running commentary that glues the community together. Much like the television companies that feed it, Hulu seems to want complete control over the programming lineup. But the Net isn’t television. Content may be king, but the mob rules.