But Hulu still has to figure out how to marry its own subscription service with the systems that are being set up by the cable and satellite operators.
A few years ago, Hulu had a motivational effect on the media industry. It is widely credited with accelerating a trend toward on-demand television that forced networks and studios to figure out what to stream online, and what not to stream.
Some shows, like “Community” on NBC and “Fringe” on Fox, have benefited markedly from online streaming. “If we’re really on our game, people will look back on it and will say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe TV was like that in 2007,’ ” Jason Kilar, Hulu’s chief executive, said at a recent advertising industry conference. He declined interview requests for this article.
But like Netflix , Hulu has faced challenges in acquiring can’t-miss TV, even from its owners. At the Hulu board level, “there is disagreement about the amount of investment necessary to acquire content for Hulu Plus,” said a television executive who insisted on anonymity because of business relationships with Hulu.
So, like Netflix, Hulu is making a push into original series. It has also licensed 13 television shows that will appear exclusively online.
Hulu differs from Netflix, though, in that it streams most of its shows at no cost with ads attached, opening them up to a much wider potential online audience. Netflix is available only to subscribers.
Mr. Forssell said that Hulu would try to “get stuff made and not compete with our partners” as it waded further into original series. He also shops for exclusive digital syndication deals like the one Hulu struck to stream “Community,” an NBC sitcom popular with the young, Web-savvy men who often watch television online.
After a scrapped bid to sell Hulu last summer, its owners have said they are committed to Hulu for now. Even so, talk of a possible sale lingers. This fall, Providence Equity has a window to exit the joint venture, according to two executives with knowledge of Hulu who insisted on anonymity to avoid harming business relationships.
“Providence can stay, or they can get out of their position. The owners would be forced to buy out Providence’s share,” said one of the executives. A spokesman for Providence declined to comment.
Hulu also faces increased threats from online competitors, most notably from YouTube, owned by Google. YouTube will hold its upfront in May and will fight for its piece of the estimated $39.5 billion that United States marketers will spend in 2012 to place ads online, up 23 percent from 2011, according to the research firm eMarketer.
What it lacks in mass audience, Hulu tries to make up through data collection on viewers and then offering those appealing demographics to advertisers.
Stoking envy among traditional television executives, the Web site collects a trove of data on its users’ preferences in programming and ads. Through its “Ad Select” feature, viewers can choose which ads they see.
If a user selects a Diet Coke ad, for example “in the future, I know you’re more of a diet-conscious person and can send you more ads for diet drinks,” said Jean-Paul Colaco, Hulu’s senior vice president for advertising.
“On a one-to-one basis, advertising placed on Hulu for our clients was more effective than advertising placed on television for the same programming,” said Steven J. Farella, chief executive at TargetCast TCM, which buys advertising time for companies.
Hulu competes with its owners not just for advertising dollars, but for viewers’ time.
“Battleground,” the Hulu original sitcom about a Senate campaign that premiered in February, was originally a pilot script developed for Fox. “A Day in the Life,” the reality show from the documentarian Morgan Spurlock, which follows celebrities for an entire day and started its second season in March, was initially pitched to cable channels. This summer, Hulu will introduce “Up to Speed,” an unscripted travel series from Richard Linklater, who directed movies like “Dazed and Confused” and “Slacker.”
To date, though, the audience for “Battleground” has not matched the online audience for TV sitcoms like “The Office,” from NBC, or “New Girl,” from Fox.
On Hulu’s monthly list of its top 100 videos, only one episode of “Battleground” shows up. Of course, viewers could discover “Battleground” a month or a year from now, and that is fine with Hulu.
The executive producer of “Battleground,” J.D. Walsh, said Hulu was “looking for less of a broad audience across every demographic and more of a specifically targeted group of people who are passionate about the show.” Mr. Spurlock said his deal with Hulu gave him greater ownership of “A Day in the Life.” Plus, he said, the service reflects how the people he knows watch television these days. “A lot of friends of mine have already started to give up their cable subscriptions,” he said.