First Look: Hulu Video Service

Big Hollywood studios take a somewhat scattered approach to distributing their video online, using a combination of their own Web sites, sites they've invested in (like Movielink), and popular third-party storefronts like iTunes.

But analysts say studios eventually want to sell video directly to consumers, either from their own sites or in small joint ventures with other studios.

That 's why the October debut of Hulu, a Web video joint venture between NBC/Universal (owned by GTE) and Fox (owned by News Corp.), is a notable date in TV and movies' transition to the Web. Portals like Hulu may eventually be the places where we go online to buy mainstream TV and movies.

Using Hulu's "private" beta with permission, I watched a good deal of the free service over the course of a weekend. I found Hulu's content selection impressive, the video quality at least passable, the site design elegant and simple, and the navigation and community features mainly useful.

Hulu's only sour note is the rather harsh restrictions that its Old Guard studio owners place on when and where and for how long you can watch the videos

Impressive Content

Hulu's main attraction is the impressive array of prime time network shows like Fox's The Simpsons and NBC's Heroes.
Contrary to the hype leading up to Hulu's coming out, the site is not designed to be a "YouTube killer". Hulu's main draw is current, prime time TV shows like Heroes, House, Scrubs, and The Simpsons. Hulu also features some old TV series episodes (Kojak, Night Gallery), and a few old movies (The Blues Brothers, The Breakfast Club), plus some clips (like Saturday Night Live bits), movie trailers, and a few viral videos thrown in for good measure.

Video Quality: Not Bad

The video quality at Hulu isn't bad, but you'll see a certain amount of pixilation.
I watched Hulu on a Gateway home computer connected to the Internet using a 1.5-mbps AT&T DSL line. The quality of Hulu's video isn't perfect, but I found it quite watchable, despite some slight pixilation and a few hiccups in the audio and video.

When I moved the navigation slider to a future point in the program, however, I saw a considerable amount of stopping and starting as the stream buffered. These things are, of course, more noticeable when you switch into full-screen mode, and any such service is only as good as the broadband pipe it comes in on.

Still, Hulu is among the best attempts I've seen yet at streaming video at high quality over the public Internet.

Navigation and Community Tools

Hulu's designers appear to have done their homework, assembling a sort of "greatest hits" of navigation and community tools in the interface. The Embed tool spits out the HTML you'll need to host Hulu video at your site or blog. The "Details" button gives you information on the show you're watching, such as its episode number and original air date.

The navigation and community tools at Hulu are well-organized and, for the most part, useful.
The designers may have borrowed the "Lower Lights" feature from Stage 6, which dims every pixel on your monitor except those within the video window. Hulu does feature one tool I hadn't seen elsewhere: Within Hulu's video share tool, you can use a simple slider tool to chop out a clip from a show and enclose it with a note to a friend.  

Restrictions Apply

As Tom Waits grumbles, "The large print giveth and the small print taketh away." While Hulu may give people a bit more control over when and where they watch TV shows, the Terms and Conditions page imposes some fairly harsh restrictions on Web viewing.

First, Hulu video is streamed only, so you can't save shows to your hard drive. Most notably, streams of the prime time TV episodes simply expire after five weeks. So if you embed one of them at your blog, after five weeks you'll see a dead link there.  Also, you can't watch Hulu video on mobile devices or if you happen to live outside the United States.

It's anybody's guess if these restrictions come from the old protectionist mindset of the studios, or as a result of pressure from their old cable and satellite distribution partners. It should be said, though, that Hulu is only in early beta, so some of the restrictions may eventually be lifted.

Hulu: Just the Beginning?

Finally, while the content is impressive, Hulu is by no means a total destination point. It only contains content from NBC/Universal and Fox (and some smaller partners). It's very unlikely that CBS, ABC, Viacom and Disney will throw their video onto Hulu any time soon.

Smart money says we'll eventually see two or three more large, competing Hulu-type portals launched by the other major studios either together or in pairs  (Actually, ABC already has a competitor germinating at ABC.com, and the video there looks as good as or better than Hulu's).

How will this work for viewers? Simple. If you don't like the shows on one portal, you'll just grab the mouse and, well, "change the channel."

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