News Corp/NBC's online venture offers TV, film

News Corp. and NBC Universal’s online vid service Hulu is set to tear off the wrapping paper Wednesday, officially launching with content from several new partners, including Warner Bros. TV Group and Lionsgate.

As it moves out of beta and goes live, the joint venture is set to offer full-length episodes of 250 TV series, as well as 100 full-length feature films, all ad supported. Several hundred more titles will be available via clips or behind-the-scenes features.

That quadruples the previous amount of content offered, said Hulu CEO Jason Kilar, although the site has yet to seal deals with several more producers — most notably, Disney/ABC, CBS and “American Idol” producers FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment.

Nonetheless, Hulu also launches with new deals that include programming from the NBA, NHL and NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball. And original Web programming appearing on Hulu will include “Prom Queen” and the “Onion News Network.”

Warner Bros. TV library content such as “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” will join a selection of the studio’s recent fare including “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” Hulu already offers programs such as “The Office,” “The Simpsons” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Movies on the site include “The Big Lebowski,” “Some Like It Hot” and “Mulholland Dr.”

“People will be very surprised at the content being made available on a free, ad-supported basis,” Kilar said.

Besides parent concerns News Corp. and NBC U, charter Hulu program suppliers have included MGM and Sony Pictures TV.

Since Hulu went into beta at the end of October, Kilar said the site has gone from 0 to 5 million viewers; Hulu videos have also been embedded 50,000 times on 5,000 websites, he said.

“The response from users has been extremely dramatic,” Kilar said. “If you make the media truly easy to consume, they’ll take you up on the offer.”

Meanwhile, Hulu said all its beta advertisers have agreed to renew their deals with the site. Hulu advertisers include Unilever, State Farm, Best Buy, DirecTV and Nissan.

As part of the launch, Hulu will introduce two advertising formats. One commercial break function will allow advertisers to give viewers a choice of which spot to watch: In the case of Nissan, for example, viewers can view a car ad for an SUV, a coupe or a sedan, depending on their interest.

“One ad agency executive told me that he’d been waiting for this for 10 years,” Kilar said of the function.

A second format, geared toward theatrical marketers, will allow studios to sponsor the entire viewing of a program — if the user agrees to watch a 2½-half minute movie trailer. If he does, then the episode can be viewed without any commercial interruption.

Hulu has revenue-sharing agreements in place with major traffic originators, such as AOL, Yahoo and MSN. Company also shares ad revenue with program suppliers on a show-by-show basis. Hulu provides ad sales in most cases, but the content providers on some shows sell their own spots.

“We’re financially indifferent between either model,” Kilar said.

On the programming front, Hulu will offer movies unedited for content; users will have to register and verify their age before watching movies rated PG-13 or above.

Kilar said he expects to continue to grow the Hulu library without phasing out current titles. For series that have been offering season one on Hulu, the service will now roll out the second season as part of the official launch but keep the freshman season onsite.

“The goal is to have it available all the time,” he said.

Sci-fi programming rules the roost at Hulu, although popular programming on the site varies dramatically. Some older library titles, like “Airwolf,” are surprisingly high on the charts.

Hulu’s heavy reliance on library content remains its biggest limitation. A search engine, however, allows users to hunt for any program on the Web; a search for “Lost,” for example, sends users to ABC’s site.

Kilar said he’s optimistic that holdouts like Disney and CBS will eventually sign on as well.

“Our conversation is an ongoing one,” he said. “It’s important that they see our results. At the end of the day, it’s our job to be transparent with them on what we’ve accomplished so far, and what that may mean to their content and their content providers. I do believe we will eventually be working together.”

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