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Hulu eyes Down Under (again)

Are broadcasters ready to play?

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Periodic and breathless speculation about when Hulu is going to jump into the Australian market has re-emerged, for the umpteenth time since 2009.

Problem is, Hulu hasn’t been able to get the local broadcast industry on board. Moreover, the pretty much constant upheavals in the business keep Australian TV networks distracted from planning for the future.

Hulu, which is owned by three of the largest US broadcast networks (Fox, NBC and ABC) has been courting Australian broadcasters since 2009 when Hulu appointed Johannes Larcher as senior VP for international. Larcher makes frequent trips to Australia doing the broadcaster rounds, and has publicly stated that Australia is on his wish-list for international expansion.

Last month at an IPTV forum in London, he said: ‘‘We are going strong on several opportunities internationally.” He added that while the technology has been built from the ground up to be global and international, the biggest challenge is access to content.

“Unless we can see a way to secure that content at reasonable economic terms, then it’s going to be difficult for us,” he said.

“We not only have deals with the three studios but 250 other partners. Our relationships are generally very positive and we can leverage part of those relationships in other markets, but the biggest challenge is access to great content.”

A Sydney Morning Herald report points to Hulu’s recent filing for an Australian trademark on March 29 as a clue that a move was imminent.

However, the game-changing web TV player has also had local domain name hulu.com.au registered for just over a year.

The failed Freeview talks

Last year it was believed that a deal was close to being finalized with Freeview, the industry body representing all the free-to-air broadcasters, but talks collapsed due to technical issues associated with digitizing the archives of the various networks.

In February it was widely touted that Australian broadcasters Network Nine and Ten were close to stitching up a deal with Hulu, but dramatic changes at Ten may have put these plans on hold. Industry insiders think that Lachlan Murdoch has been driving discussions with Hulu, via his News Corp interests on behalf of the Ten network.

Hulu’s premium content model would certainly provide a gust of fresh air to the broadcasting sector but may also chill the attempts of IPTV aspirants FetchTV, along with Telstra and Foxtel, which are dabbling with their own versions of web TV.

Aggressive moves in this area seem to be hedged around the advent of the National Broadband Network to provide ubiquitous high speed broadcast quality internet access to consumers.

Hulu, which only operates in the US, offers two services: an advertiser supported OTT (“over the top”) service providing catch-up TV and archived library content of over 3000 different shows. In November, it launched its second model: Hulu+ , a subscription model with advertising. Hulu claims 30 million unique users a month and has 400 advertising clients along with its 250 content partners.

The operator is taking advantage of the rise of connected TVs and devices in order to provide a seamless service across any device.

As web TV pioneer and the BBC’s YouView founder Anthony Rose warned during a visit to Sydney last month: “Broadcasters and content providers must be able to control a combination of all those end destination experiences. And they need to do that to remain relevant today and keep their eyeballs.”

He added that “the reality is that every TV produced in the next 6-9 months in a developed country is going to be a connected TV. So by 2014 the majority of TVs will be connected to the Internet and if the content offerings are good they will be connected.”

Rose also warned that if “Australian media players are predicating their futures on an NBN environment, they should stop. The train’s coming – you can’t wait for another train that starts in five to ten years

“You have to go with what exists today, you can never wait for the future,” he concluded.

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