Sunday, April 20, 2008

In Praise Of Hulu

I'm usually one of the first people to simply roll my eyes at the efforts of traditional broadcast media companies to adapt to the new paradigms of online penetration. Witness the debacle of various networks as they hemmed and hawed about putting their shows on iTunes, only to pull them off over perceived pricing disputes. Or watching movie studios and television networks turn on their ardent consumers who would gladly pay to watch their content on alternate devices (iPods, laptops, etc.) by suing them. I have been patently disgusted with the 19th century approaches most have taken in the past, so months ago when I read that NBC and Fox were planning to respond to the constant "piracy" of having their shows show up on YouTube by building an online site dedicated to video streaming, I snorted in derision, and passed it off as another lame attempt to convince less knowledgeable viewers that they truly were "cutting edge."

Ok, I can admit it: I was dead wrong.

Hulu.com is the result of this effort, and I have to say after a couple of months of use, I am absolutely floored. Let's start with the basics: it not only offers all of the current episodes of the major TV shows from both networks, but is stocked with classic series, to boot. Miss Studio 60? Got 'em. Hankering for a little 1980's TV? Check out Airwolf and the A-Team. How about catching up on those series that everyone's been talking about, but you missed the start of, so you don't want to come in halfway? Say hello to Heroes and Battlestar Galactica. I mean, the list goes on and on. And it doesn't stop with TV: movies, movies, movies. The Usual Suspects, Dude, Where's My Car...impressive selection.

The streaming is flawless. I don't know how they do it, but it starts playing instantly, and none of the dreaded buffering that plagues YouTube. The interface is elegant, simple and functional: from the concept of "lowering the lights" to darken everything else on the page, to perfect positioning. And the full screen is amazing. Hear me out: most sites, when they stream video, you go full screen, and you might as well be looking at a Roy Lichtenstein painting, with pixels the size of baseballs. Hulu somehow gets it at even better than broadcast quality.

Let's talk ads. Obviously, this has got to be paid for, right? So Hulu inserts ads at logical points of the stream. On TV shows, when the commercial break happens; movies, at scene transitions. The ads are usually what drives me away from streaming, but here, they are extremely well done: not more than 30 seconds, with a counter indicating when the ad will be over. And the ads are actually good: non-intrusive, rich in quality. I can say I have watched more ads on Hulu in the last 2 months than I have watched on TV in the last 2 years (my DVR lets me skip them all). Even better, Hulu is experimenting on ads: on some shows, they will start by giving you an option to watch the show with the inserted ads, or choose to watch a 2 minute movie preview to start, eliminating all ads. It's your choice. Very cool.

Now, why would you use this? First, most TV's being sold now are flatscreens: LCD or Plasma. They are, essentially, big computer monitors that you can plug your desktop or laptop in. In our kitchen, we got a flascreen. Comcast came out, couldn't figure out how to get the TV wired up on the wall we have it without draping wires all over the kitchen. Instead, I opted to pick up a small HP Windows Media Center desktop, popped in a WiFi adaptor, and voila. At first, I was watching shows I had downloaded (ahem), but quickly realized what a pain that was. I added a SlingBox to watch our cable/DVR in the kitchen, and while it works well, it has some occasional connectivity issues. I'd tried streaming some video from ABC.com and Fox, but the quality was not there, and their "players" were buggy. Hulu was a hail Mary, and it paid off like a perfect Doug Flutie pass.

They've added a number of new features since exiting beta, such as favorite subscriptions, and a community function, but the core is still as good as ever. The major complaint about Hulu has been the scattershot depth of content. For instance, we just started watching Hell's Kitchen on Hulu, but they only have episodes from this season, not the previous 3. They claim to be importing new content as fast as they can, and they have already sold out of online ad inventory from their advertisers, so I'm prepared to say it looks like a bright Hulu future.



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