Could it Hurt The Daily Show and Colbert Report’s Fan-Base Further Down the Road?

Viacom announced yesterday that it will pull The Daily Show and The Colbert Report from the most popular online video site, Hulu. Although Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert top Hulu’s charts, Viacom said the shows are not meeting their monetary expectations. It’s a risky move that could help Viacom in programming negotiations or it could eliminate the user discovery phase for the next generation of viewers. If, however, The Daily Show and Colbert Report have built a sizable fan base, they will not need the user discovery phase… at least for now.

Viacom’s decision might demonstrate the communications giant’s inability to see the big picture. Although Hulu might fall short of Viacom’s revenue expectations (in addition to being a market competitor), it is the first in a set of dominoes that make-up The Daily Show and Colbert Report’s fan-base. Hulu is the starting point in two distinct fan-building stages: 1) experimental / discovery (Hulu, Facebook) and 2) true fan (DailyShow.com, Tumblr). By eliminating the first step in the fan-building process, Viacom could compromised the future growth of its hardcore fan-base.

To gain initial acceptance, a brand must first seek recognition. Hulu and Facebook are incredible platforms to promote your brand to a broad audience; to cast a wide net — trolling for passer-bys. Hulu is a promotional platform that captures nearly 25 million monthly unique users (quite a large net). Features on Hulu’s homepage can build awareness and capture “experimental” users in search for something entertaining to watch.

If users enjoy episodes and clips on Hulu, the next stage is to activate the audience. This is your inner, core audience of passionate viewers. They moved beyond the passer-by phase and are in a search to get the ultimate fan fix. They visit The DailyShow.com or check out The Office’s official site to buy fan merchandise (think the Dwight bobble-head), play games, watch online-only webisodes and special content only available at The Office or the Daily Show’s official website.

Viacom’s decision to eliminate the experimental / discovery phase of the fan-building process could effect its future hardcore base. As The Daily Show and Colbert Report already have a sizable following, removing the programming from Hulu might not have immediate negative implications. However, as Hulu continues it’s tremendous growth, the Daily Show and Colbert Report could lose out big, and consequently, missing the chance to engage new audiences.

In fact, I followed the fan-building process with the Daily Show. In high school, although the Daily Show was on TV, I never bothered to watch. Then, when I began poking around Hulu, I stumbled across the Daily Show and decided to give it another try. I went to Comedy Central to watch more clips and get special features not available on Hulu.com. Now, I’m addicted. Every weekday I watch the latest episode (Brian Williams is always the best guest). What if Viacom pulled The Daily Show when I was in the experimental / discovery phase? Chances are, I would not try to turn other people onto Jon Stewart nor publish this article. Experimentation phase is critical for brand and fan building and while Viacom might not see immediate impact from their decision, years down the road, it could regret the decision to pull its programming from Hulu.