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Hulu Plus pacts with WWE

Wrestling content to stream the day after cable airing

In one of its largest content deals to date, Hulu Plus has inked an exclusive multiyear pact with WWE to stream all of the company’s TV shows and some of its Web series.

Beginning today, subscribers of Hulu’s paid service will be able to watch WWE’s roster of shows that currently includes WWE’s “Monday Night Raw,” “Friday Night SmackDown,” “WWE NXT,” “WWE Superstars,” “WWE Main Event” and “WWE en Espanol.” Deal could eventually include “WWE Saturday Morning Slam,” which recently began airing on the CW’s new Vortexx-branded kids programming block, produced by Saban Brands.

Episodes will be offered the day after they air on their current homes like USA Network, Syfy and Ion Television.

The additional hours of programming for Hulu is significant given that “Raw” airs over three hours on USA and “SmackDown” runs for two hours each week. Both shows air year-round without breaks.

New distribution deal comes as WWE has upped its online profile mainly through its YouTube channel, which features original shorts to promote the company’s brand and athletes. “NXT” and “Superstars” already have been airing on WWE’s website after ending their TV runs on Syfy and WGN America in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Episodes of shows have also appeared on YouTube and TV.com.

But the Hulu Plus pact also represents an increased effort by WWE to drum up more digital dollars from its large library of programming as online auds grow and give fans a way to catch up on episodes they may have missed while making money from them at the same time.

“We’re a content creator and what we need to do is figure out where our fans are going to view content and monetize it,” Michelle Wilson, WWE’s chief marketing officer, told Variety. “That’s been our marching order for the past three years.”

Naturally, move will also help WWE court cord cutters who don’t pay for cable services, thus keeping them from watching WWE’s more popular shows like “Raw,” on USA Network, and “SmackDown,” on Syfy. Ion Television will launch “WWE Main Event” on Oct. 3.

WWE stresses that wasn’t an impetus for the Hulu deal, however, with WWE chairman Vince McMahon saying it simply serves as another platform to deliver “more ways for our fans to experience WWE programming than ever before.”

The brand that Hulu, which is backed by Disney, NBCUniversal and News Corp., has built since its launch and the various platforms through which it’s offered, including videogame consoles, helped attract WWE.

Hulu Plus announced in April that it has more than 2 million paying subs who spend $7.99 a month to access its programming in HD on a variety of devices that connect to the Internet. That comes as an estimated 2.7 million people turned to alternative methods to access cable shows between 2008 and 2011, according to the Convergence Consulting Group.

While neither company discussed specific financial terms, WWE is expected to collect a percentage of advertising and subscription fees based on the popularity of the shows.

“They will share in the upside from growth across the whole service,” said Andy Forssell, Hulu’s senior VP of content.

WWE isn’t new to Hulu.

For years, older episodes of “Raw” and “SmackDown” have aired on Hulu’s free ad-supported service as an experiment to gauge the size of online auds for its content on a non WWE-branded platform. Most episodes appeared three days after their initial airings on TV. Hulu Latino also already streams “WWE en Espanol.”

“It’s not something we or WWE have invested in in a big way,” Forssell said. The two companies decided to expand their relationship after Hulu found “even little bits of programming can become powerful with passionate fans.”

“We’re just fascinated with this audience,” Forssell said. “The fanbase that they’ve built over decades is pretty amazing. It’s an audience that votes with their time, and they’ll go wherever their favorite content is,” adding that WWE’s shows attract a younger male audience that appeals to Hulu’s advertisers.

Since WWE’s shows air year-round and eschew the traditional season model, Hulu now also has a constant flow of new episodes appearing on its service.

“It’s great for us,” Forssell said. “We live in a world with heavy seasonality. For us, it’s fantastic to have year-round content.”

So far, the WWE deal only involves TV shows. Films that WWE has produced are not yet part of the distribution deal, but the companies are considering a number of options.

“We will re-evaluate that down the road,” Wilson said. “We see this as a long and productive partnership.”

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