Hulu orders first scripted original skein

Linklater, Spurlock land unscripted series

Hulu has ordered its first scripted original series.

Thirteen episodes of the half-hour dramedy “Battleground” will premiere on Feb. 13, the streaming service announced at its first-ever TCA session Sunday.

Hulu is also picking up an unscripted series produced by Richard Linklater and renewing its first original unscripted series order, “A Day in the Life,” from Morgan Spurlock.

“Battleground,” which Fox Broadcasting Co. developed last year before dropping the project, is an inside look at a fictional political campaign from JD Walsh, Hagai Shaham and Marc Webb (“The Amazing Spiderman”).

Hulu’s entry into scripted is the latest evidence of intensifying competition among digital power players scrambling for viewers and advertisers.

“Battleground” comes on the heels of another portal powerhouse, Yahoo, doing same just last week, with the Tom Hanks-produced animated series “Electric City,” though that project is short-form episodes. Netflix has ordered at least four full-length scripted series over the past year, including a revival of the Fox comedy “Arrested Development.”

Given the increasing commoditization of catalog content like movies and TV shows, these companies are spending more on either exclusive or original fare that can differentiate from the pack. “It’s important to get content that fans don’t just like, but love,” said Andy Forssell, senior VP of content at Hulu.

While Yahoo is courting advertisers and Netflix is luring subscribers, Hulu is doing a bit of both given its business has a foot in both the free, ad-supported realm via Hulu.com and the monthly sub game via Hulu Plus. All of Hulu’s original series are available on both components of its business.

The original series orders are just the latest example of how Hulu has sought to diversify its content offerings beyond next-day access to primetime series from broadcasters owned by its parent companies News Corp., Disney and NBCUniversal, which reconsidered selling the joint venture late last year.

With next-day access to Fox programming on Hulu pushed back to eight days for viewers who don’t have Hulu Plus or can’t authenticate via subscriptions to participating multichannel providers–and ABC expected to follow suit–Hulu needs to find new ways to drive value to the free portion of its website.

In addition to bringing on original series like “Battleground,” Hulu has also done deals with varying degrees of exclusivity for series as varied as the British cult hit “Misfits to NBC’s “Community”. Netflix has also done same, locking up series including AMC’s “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead.”

But having an original scripted series that hasn’t anywhere else yet is considered the best tool for standing out with either advertisers or viewers. That said, it’s unlikely the cost of “Battleground” is on par with the low seven-figure bill most half-hours ring up on TV. While Forssell–who declined to specify its cost–said Hulu has no limits in place on what it would pay for programming, he added, “we’d like to keep costs as low as possible.”

Part of the way that’s done is for Hulu to strike deals with producers that have terms that are hard to come by in the TV business, such as not taking ownership of the program. Forssell would not comment on deal specifics for the new programming.

Hulu has turned to former Fox Searchlight exec Charlotte Koh to develop original series, and her background is in keeping with a creative mandate Forssell identified as a guiding principle for the company.

“Why has creativity and vibrancy of indie TV never manifested itself in primetime TV?” said Forssell. “Part of it is because it’s structurally easier to do with a closed-ended movie, but we’re looking at how we use this ecosystem to unleash that kind of creativity?”

New episodes of “Battleground” will run every Tuesday beginning Feb. 14, with back episodes available throughout its run.

Indie vet Linklater (“Before Sunrise”) is delivering six episodes of “Up to Speed,” in which Timothy “Speed” Levitch, who was featured in acclaimed doc “The Cruise,” gives tours of destinations across the country.

Spurlock’s “Day,” which premiered on Hulu in August, will be back with new episodes featuring celebrities including Marc Maron and Joel McHale. Forssell could not specify how many streams “Day” generated given Hulu does not disclose series’ individual performances.

Both “Day” and “Speed” will bow in the first half of the year.

Last week, Hulu disclosed 2011 results that showed growth on both fronts. Hulu revenues increased 60% year over year to $420 million while its sub base reached 1.5 million.

In a blog post announcing his company’s results, CEO Jason Kilar pledged to spend $500 million on content in 2012.

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