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Hulu draws new lines with ‘Battleground’

Original series key to differentiation as marketplace heats up

“Battleground” is an apt title for Hulu’s first original scripted series. The netcaster is fighting competition on more than one front as it expands its roster of programming to include homegrown shows.

Hulu has made its name by allowing viewers the luxury of watching network TV fare on their own timetables. But it has growing competition in the on-demand arena of platforms offering “last night’s TV,” as Hulu execs refer to the service’s bread-and-butter programs.

As network fare from Hulu’s parent companies — NBCUniversal, News Corp. and Disney — becomes more widely available (in various release windows) via Netflix, Amazon, Xbox et al, Hulu is looking to a smattering of exclusive original series to differentiate its service. In this way, Hulu is acting a lot like a young cable network with reasonably deep pockets.

Hulu’s push comes on the heels of Netflix making headlines with its plunge into originals with the David Fincher/Kevin Spacey drama “House of Cards” and the revival of “Arrested Development.” It’s a sobering sign of the pace of change in the Web-TV landscape. Groundbreaking businesses that barely existed a few years ago (Hulu marks the fourth anniversary of its public bow on March 12) are now under pressure to add more bells and whistles.

As such, Hulu faces the old-fashioned network challenge of drawing a crowd to new programs. It’s not entirely new territory: Hulu took a stab at an elaborate original series in 2010 with the Simon Fuller-produced reality series “If I Can Dream,” but it didn’t make much of an impact.

“Battleground,” which begins its 13-episode run on Feb. 14, is set against the backdrop of a rough-and-tumble Senate race in Wisconsin that begins to have national implications. The project, from writer-producer J.D. Walsh, was developed last year as a single-camera comedy for Fox. Its reincarnation for Hulu leans more toward the drama side, though it remains a half-hour series, in focusing on the ups and downs of a hot-shot campaign manager.

In addition to “Battleground,” Hulu earlier this month unveiled a 10-episode order for “Up to Speed,” an offbeat docu series from helmer Richard Linklater; and a second-season renewal for Morgan Spurlock’s “A Day in the Life.” Beyond these, Hulu has been on the hunt for imports from the U.K. and Canada that it can tout as U.S. exclusives.

Earlier this month Hulu struck a deal for the Canuck drama “Endgame,” which will run through March. Last fall it carried Brit sci-fi drama “Misfits” and comedy “Whites,” as well as “The Booth at the End,” a made-for-Internet drama from Michael Eisner’s Vuguru banner.

Andy Forssell, Hulu’s senior veep of content, said expanding the program menu has long been part of the service’s business blueprint. It’s seen as a smart way to make the most of the large aud that Hulu attracts. That’s something the three major partners are interested in now that they’ve reversed their plan to sell the company, after testing the waters last summer.

Moreover, the pricetag that Hulu pays for its originals is still pretty modest, even compared to low-end basic cable. Originals will account for only a fraction of the $500 million that Hulu has earmarked for content licensing this year.

“As we build, the audience is asking for more things and more content,” Forssell says. “We’re exercising the things we’ve gotten good at — making the connection between a viewer and a show using our tools and data.”

Hulu execs have a lot faith in the tool kit that the company has spent so much time developing to understand the viewing habits and preferences of its users. Forssell’s background before joining Hulu was in product development and data management for tech giants Siebel Systems and Oracle Corp.

“Battleground” will get a full-court press of algorithm-driven recommendations to carefully targeted Hulu users as its preem draws near. There will also be some off-site digital marketing once the show has aired at least three or four episodes.

“We’re big believers in using data to smartly market efficiently,” Forssell says. “We take a look at a user’s whole history with us to be smart and build trust with them. It’s not just based on the idea that someone is watching show Z so we’ll give them this recommendation. We want users to trust that if Hulu is pushing something out at them, they should at least go give it a look.”

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