Nielsen Online’s VideoSense survey of February online video streaming habits delivered some surprising results. The NBC Universal/News Corp. joint venture Hulu has vaulted to the No. 2 position behind 1,600-pound gorilla (yeah—it’s twice as big as an 800-pound monkey) YouTube. No doubt fueled by a TV campaign that started with the Super Bowl, the video hub for professionally produced video has succeeded in challenging YouTube, at least in brand recognition. The 308 million streams Hulu issued in February remains a fraction of YouTube’s 5.1 billion streams. But the idea is abroad that online video has two clear über-brands. YouTube represents poorly monetized piano-playing cats and kids skateboarding off of roofs. Hulu seems to be a home for TV episodes and branded short-form content from new partners like Condé Nast Digital, which just announced a distribution and revenue sharing deal with the site this week.

Top 5 Online Video Brands

1. YouTube (5.1 billion streams to 55.1 million unique users)
2. Hulu (308.8 million streams to 9.4 million uniques)
3. Yahoo (250.4 million streams to 24 million uniques)
4. Nickelodeon Kids and Family Network (209.4 million streams to 6 million uniques)
5. Fox Interactive Media (194.2 million streams to 14.3 million uniques)
Source: Nielsen Online

And herein lies the significance of these numbers. The war is not over sheer number of streams. The real battle involves brand identity, audience quality and ultimately advertiser acceptance. YouTube continues to struggle with ad formats and revenue models that can monetize this ragtag collection of monstrously popular but equally unprofitable video. One of their chief models has been to focus the ad model on video partnerships with major TV and Web brands so advertisers are assured their pre-rolls and banners don’t run next to questionable content.

On the other hand, so far, Hulu seems to be attracting major brands as advertisers, and many in the media buying world applaud both the formats and the clean, well-lit haven Hulu represents. If major content brands have a high-profile alternative to partnering with YouTube, such as a Hulu, then the battle is waged over content partnerships, not eyeballs. It is conceivable that Hulu could make as much in ad revenue off of a tenth the number of streams YouTube serves because advertisers are that much more willing to pay for them. If Hulu becomes the go-to place for professionally produced content, then the advertisers will follow. YouTube’s “puny” contender suddenly becomes a real thorn in its side, siphoning off the partnerships it wants and needs to secure an ad-supported future. Five billion video streams is an expensive project to host.

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