There was a line down 41st Street . There were celebrities like Adrian Grenier, Seth Meyers and Mario Batali. There were green cocktails. And, yes, there were some new shows. In short, Hulu's big event for advertisers at the Times' Center looked like it was supposed to: a lot like a TV network upfront.
The resemblance is exactly, and explicitly, what Hulu wanted to show the crowd of about 500, including several of the most prominent digital-ad buyers on Madison Avenue and executives from marketers such as BMW and Samsung. "We want you to think of us as a cable-TV network, or a slice of the prime time," said sales chief JP Colaco.
And so digital media's attempt to take ad dollars out of TV's upfront season started today with the online-video player most directly analogous to traditional TV. Indeed, Hulu is largely an online distributor for its TV-network partners -- NBC, ABC and Fox -- but is out to prove that it can be more. As CEO Jason Kilar said, quoting Alan Kay, inventor of the graphic computer interface: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
Hulu rolled out four shows today, including an animated series, "The Awesomes," about comically flawed superheroes, from "Saturday Night Live" star Mr. Meyers and "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon " producer Michael Shoemaker. "Don't Quit Your Daydream," a series about struggling musicians, comes from creator Mr. Grenier. Hulu also pitched "We Got Next," a comedy based on friendships forged on the basketball court, and "Flow," a fantasy series based on the sport of parkour.
Hulu will add those shows to its growing list of originals, which include the drama "Battleground," Morgan Spurlock's "A Day in the Life" and "Up to Speed."
Hulu's head of programming, Andy Forssell, studiously avoided using the terms "web series" in describing Hulu's new programming. Instead he said sees Hulu creating a market for independent TV that might not otherwise find a place on traditional cable and broadcast networks. "With Hulu we have the opportunity to do to TV what Sundance did for film," he said.
Hulu had some skepticism to overcome in the audience of media buyers and clients. First, web series don't exactly have a reputation for TV-like quality. And second, the notion of buying digital inventory up front, as TV is purchased, assumes scarcity, which is not usually the case online.
On the quality of shows, Hulu appeared to have some converts."I have never taken the notion of 'digital upfronts' seriously," said Jon Kaiser, director of digital strategy at Maxus, a unit of WPP. Mr. Kaiser was himself a TV buyer earlier in his career. "Some of these shows look really good," he said. "On a few I felt myself being pulled into the content."
While Mr. Kaiser doesn't have direct oversight of TV dollars, he said that he works closely with broadcast counterparts to direct spending on digital TV like Hulu or the networks' "TV Everywhere" offerings. "I think these deserve every bit the look of a CW or a Fox," he said.
David Cohen, chief media officer at Universal McCann, said that while digital media has been making its case for TV dollars for a long time, this year feels different. "We have been talking about video across screens for years, but the stars are aligning across a number of dimensions to make the fluidity of dollars more real for agencies and marketers," he said.
Hulu offers TV buyers the closest approximation to what they're used to buying and is in some ways a gateway to widening their overall digital investment.
"Hulu has become a sort of portal to the online video marketplace for TV buyers," said Digitas senior VP John McCarus, who has organized the Digitas NewFronts, the agency's showcase of made-for-the-web video, for the past several years.
The Digital Content NewFronts, an organized series of upfront-like events from digital media companies like Yahoo, AOL, MSN and others, began with Hulu today and will wrap up with YouTube on May 2.