Online television

Lights, camera, action at Hulu

May 24, 2012: 1:26 PM ET

More and more content distributors like Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube are starting to make their own programs. Will anyone watch them?

Hulu recently announced plans to release original programming in addition to its lineup of network shows like "30 Rock."

FORTUNE -- TV is so good these days that there's no excuse for watching anything that bores you, says Hulu's vice president of content, Andy Forssell: "Shame on you if you're watching something that's just sort of entertaining," because something great is always on.

But now, companies like Hulu want to do more than just provide a portal for great TV, they want to make it. Last weekend, Hulu announced plans to release three original Hulu-branded shows this summer. One is a movie review program called Spoilers, the trailer for which repeats "only on Hulu" enough to sear its branding message in viewers' minds.

The question is, will Hulu and other companies make anything that people will actually want to watch?

It will not be a cakewalk. Like Forssell said, there is a fair share of solid television on right now, and even the programs that are terrible are addictive. As always, new content must compete for eyeballs that may already be overcommitted to established shows. At the same time, companies that have traditionally been distributors -- think Netflix, Amazon and YouTube, to name a few -- are entering the creative space as well.

MORE: Is Comcast violating net-neutrality rules?

Plenty of companies that mainly show others' content have tried, and failed, to do this before. Former Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Terry Semel, a man with a Hollywood background, joined the tech giant in 2001 with a vision to turn the company into a major producer of its own content. That didn't turn out well. 

In 2009, Comcast (CMCSA) created a division called NBC-Universal Digital Studio to make original web content, but closed it down in 2011. EBay (EBAY) even tried to launch its own reality series called "Make it Happen," that told the stories behind the people selling goods on the site; it never got anywhere. Several companies have learned the hard way that making content does not mean that it will take.

Yet, many distributors are going to have to try, and not necessarily because they will rake in huge profits. The point of producing original content is less about making the next Mad Men, although that would be great, and more about differentiation. More

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