Hulu has not one, but two original shows ready to stream over the Interwaves in the near future—one of them is even scripted. (The other is reality. Groan.) These aren't just six-packs of five minute webisodes; they're original content aiming to follow in the footsteps of HBO. Giddyup!
Hollywood is teetering on a ledge, debating whether or not it should jump into the great unknown of the internet. Hulu and Netflix are standing behind, ready to push the industry in for its own good.
The amateur, short-form online video boom of the past five years has been cool, but it isn't an endgame. Sure, it generated an audience—we'll always watch those five minute Funny or Die vids in our cubicles as we work—but it isn't enough to drive an industry. Online TV has the potential to be more than just an alternate, low-budget route for jaded producers, writers, and actors. It could do more than just serve as a glorified DVR with more restrictions than an airport security checkpoint. On-demand, broadcast-quality TV on any device is the prize. Hulu and Netflix have delivered on the infrastructure, but networks and studios are balking on content in the name of short-term profit. So in the face of hostility, the two services have decided to stop waiting for the dinosaurs to come around, and in effect, have become their own networks. Awesome.
Hulu's new shows—Battleground, a dramedy about a Democratic primary campaign, and Up to Speed, a road-tripping reality show—are coming from the likes of Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) and Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer, The Amazing Spider-man). House of Cards, Netflix's high-profile project, is the child of David Fincher and Kevin Spacey. And let us not forget that new episodes of Arrested Development are also on their way to Netflix. That's quality talent. This isn't just on par with the network's current offerings, it has the potential to be better. These companies aren't just aiming at becoming an alternative to cable; these are the moves of usurpers.
But putting together high-quality television also comes at great risk. Hulu and Netflix are using these shows as their main tactical element in their strategic war against the networks. But it's not like they have 10 of them. And while trailers and pitches and premises all sound great, things go wrong. Unmet expectations, problems with cast and crew, and budgetary issues all loom large in producers' nightmares. What if things fall apart? House of Cards alone required a $100 million bid from Netflix. If the show turns out to be awful—or just doesn't resonate with viewers—and Netflix doesn't reap the reward of people subscribing just to watch this show, where does that leave them? They had a rough 2011 in every imaginable way. They might not recover from that kind of failure.
Hopefully the companies won't fail, because this has the potential to be awesome. It's a vision that may not be fully realized for another 10 years, but it's exciting. So tune in, because only a viewership can keep this futuristic concept afloat. Unless they suck—in which case, uhm, cable operators are standing by.