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In original Internet shows, hints of coming change

By Jake Coyle

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 26 2012 4:15 p.m. MST

In this image released by Hulu.com, from left, Lindsey Payne, Jordan T. Maxwell and Ben Samuel portray campaign workers in "Battleground," a mock documentary about a third-place political candidate in Wisconsin. After years of drips and drabs of experimentation, the top video destinations on the Web are flush with original projects and teaming with a new wave of niche-oriented content creators.

Hulu.com, Associated Press

NEW YORK — After years of experimenting, the top video destinations on the Web are suddenly flush with original programming: documentaries, reality shows and scripted series.

Over the next few months, YouTube, Netflix and Hulu will roll out their most ambitious original programming yet — a digital push into a traditional television business that has money, a bevy of stars and a bold attitude of reinvention.

The long-predicted collision between Internet video and broadcast television is finally under way.

No one is suggesting that the quality on the Internet is close to that of broadcast TV, but it's becoming easy to imagine a day when it will be.

And even though critics question whether new media can rival a business that's been around for about 70 years, the video sites have sought partnerships with seasoned professionals. And they benefit from the different economics of global Web-based entertainment.

Either way, what's happening now is just the first wave.

"This convergence is now," says documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who created "The Failure Club," a series about people trying to do the things they've always feared, for Yahoo, and "A Day in the Life," a series documenting 24 hours of someone's life, for Hulu.

He says the quality still varies, but viewers will soon see talent and production values begin to change.

On Feb. 6, Netflix will premiere its first scripted show, "Lilyhammer," in which Steve Van Zandt ("The Sopranos") plays a New York mobster in witness protection in Norway. Later this year, it will release "House of Cards," a highly anticipated adaptation of the British miniseries produced by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey. Next year, it will debut new episodes of the cultish comedy "Arrested Development," which originally aired on Fox.

Hulu plans a Feb. 14 premiere for "Battleground," a mock political documentary. The site will later release "Up to Speed," a six-part documentary by Richard Linklater about "monumentally ignored monuments of American cities."

Hulu, which has some 30 million monthly users and 1.5 million for its monthly subscription service Hulu Plus, is co-owned by the parent companies of NBC, Fox and ABC.

Yahoo has sought to capitalize on its enormous search audience of nearly 180 million unique monthly visitors by drawing viewers to its original programming, including a slate of women-focused shows launched last fall and comedy programming planned for February. Its first scripted entry will be "Electric City," a futuristic animated series produced by Tom Hanks, who will also voice a character.

YouTube recently launched an entire catalog of original programming, spending $100 million on the gradual rollout of more than 100 niche-oriented channels.

The channels don't have the pressures of a 24-hour schedule and instead focus on short-form, on-demand programming. Partners vary from the Wall Street Journal to World Wrestling Entertainment to Madonna.

At the recent consumer electronics trade show CES, YouTube's global head of content predicted that by 2020 about 75 percent of channels will be transmitted by the Internet. And video will soon be 90 percent of all traffic.

"Over time, you will see more and more television properties, television channels distributed over the Internet," Robert Kyncl said. "Everything in its due time."

Internet delivery allows programming that is "much harder to fulfill through traditional distribution means...because we have a global scale," Kyncl added.

And online systems can serve niche audiences that would be difficult to sustain any other way, and do so at lower cost.

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