The Next Weapon in the War For TV Viewers: Original, Web-Only Shows

When it comes down to it, the value offered by services like Netflix and Hulu is primarily in their content offerings. Sure, they provide an on-demand, convenient way of consuming that content from a multitude of devices, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the television shows and movies available on each service. Historically, the premium videos that stream online have consisted almost entirely of material originally produced for another, older medium. In 2012, that’s slowly beginning to change.

After what turned out to be a pretty good year in 2011, Hulu announced last week that they are planning to invest $500 million in new content initiatives. That will undoubtedly include more pricey agreements with traditional content providers, but today the company revealed another place it plans on spending that money: on original programming.

Hulu’s first scripted, original television show, titled “Battleground,” will air next month, following “reality” and documentary-style programming that Hulu launched in 2010 and 2011. The series will be joined by the second season of Morgan Spurlock’s “A Day in the Life,” which debuted on Hulu last year. More original programming is expected to land on the popular streaming service later in the year.

A week before the debut of “Battleground,” Netflix will be airing its first installment of original programming as well. A mobster drama called “Lilyhammer” is expected to be the first in a series of Netflix-only shows to launch over the next two years. Next year, the canceled-yet-beloved series “Arrested Development” will be making its triumphant return to screens of all sizes, not through the Fox network on which it originally aired, but exclusively through Netflix.

Web-Only Premium Content: A Disruptive Force?

As early and unproven as this Web-first model is, it may well represent the next phase in Web TV and pose a tangible challenge to traditional content distributors. Such a challenge would come despite the predictions of people like Mark Cuban, who recently wrote a blog post outlining why the television business as we know it isn’t going anywhere, despite advances made in the online streaming industry.

Cuban, himself the chairman of a cable network, touts the immediacy and timeliness of the traditional TV model, as well as its inherent value to advertisers, who he says prefer to have their messages reach viewers within a shorter timeframe.

Still, if Web-only series such as those premiering on Netflix and Hulu do particularly well and spawn more like them, that will be one less reason for many people to keep their cable subscriptions, if they ever sign up in the first place. With the arguable exception of live sports and certain popular, premium cable programming, the incentive for subscribing to cable continues to decline, especially as prices climb.

Long the go-to source for LOLcats and viral, homemade videos, YouTube is getting serious about premium content as well, with Google actively seeking more professional video content and redesigning the site to help better showcase that content. This push for premium video comes as Google TV is being revamped and added to more connected devices and television sets.

Cable may not go extinct overnight, but if what we saw come out of CES last week is any indication, the future of TV is very much connected to the Web and far more interactive than ever.

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