Peter Kafka

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Hulu Makes Its First Move Outside the U.S., Courtesy of a Reality Show You Don’t Know

If I Can Dream HuluHulu is a big hit in the U.S. But even though the video site has spent a year trying to gain a foothold in other countries, you still can’t see it anywhere else.

This should change early next year, but in the most limited way. Hulu plans to let users in the U.K., and most likely, other countries, access its U.S. site to watch a single show: The made-for-the Web reality series, “If I Can Dream.”

The show comes via 19 Entertainment, owner and creator of the “American Idol” franchise, and has a similar theme: It will follow five would-be stars as they try to make their way as actors, singers, etc. They’ll live in a Hollywood house wired with HD cameras and microphones, and viewers will be able to follow them live, seven days a week, via a streaming Web video site.

That footage will be edited down to a 30-minute weekly highlights show for Hulu. And that’s the show that should provide many international viewers with their first glimpse of Hulu, owned by GE’s (GE) NBC, News Corp.’s (NWS) Fox and Disney’s (DIS) ABC.

The press release announcing “If I Can Dream” says “it will be the first recurring show to be available to select international audiences via Hulu,” though it doesn’t spell out which countries or a time frame. But I’m told the series is set to start running early next year and that the U.K., where 19 Entertainment is based, is one of the countries slated to get access.

There’s still a possibility that the international plans could fall through. However, 19 Entertainment owns the show outright, which ought to make things easy. And both Ford (F) and Pepsi (PEP), which have already signed on to underwrite much of the show’s costs, advertise internationally, which ought to make things even easier.

But since “If I Can Dream” will use recorded music as a soundtrack, clearing the rights to every song in every territory could pose a problem.

That uncertainty should also help explain why Hulu has taken so long to expand the rest of the site to other countries: Even when Hulu finds major TV partners that want to work with it–which isn’t always a given–sorting out rights problems for every show or movie can be a lot of work.

Meanwhile, a few notes on “If I Can Dream”:

  • Hulu and 19 Entertainment, which is owned by Bob Sillerman’s CKX (CKXE) licensing shop, don’t seem exactly sure how to describe the new venture. Hulu’s press release calls it a “post-reality entertainment show.” But 19 Entertainment’s PR guy asked me specifically to avoid calling it a reality show. “It’s a Web experience,” he explains. Okay, then.
  • Whatever you want to call it, at least parts of “If I Can Dream” will seem familiar: There’s the Peeping Tom component of “Big Brother,” mixed with “Idol’s” star-making. And if we’re lucky, some drunken debauchery a la “The Real World.”
  • The most interesting element is the show’s path to Hulu: 19 Entertainment originally pitched the show to broadcast and cable networks, which hemmed and hawed, I’m told. But sources say Hulu jumped at the chance to run the show as an exclusive. Theoretically, if it does well enough on the Web, it could end up on conventional TV next year, too. But “If I Can Dream” is designed to turn a profit without leaving the Internet.
  • The show is synergized from the get-go: In addition to the Ford, Pepsi and Hulu connections, it will also use promotion from News Corp.’s MySpace, which will help run a talent search to find new faces as the old ones cycle out. And Clear Channel (CCO) will use its network of radio stations to promote the talent.
  • The cast of five seems to be composed of exceptionally good-looking people. If you’re trying to view this clip from outside the U.S., you’ll have to take my word for it: