As I type this, Hulu is temporarily closed as it is prepared for public roll-out on Wednesday.
What, you might ask if you're too busy creating images to watch them on a beta website, is Hulu? As best I can tell, it is an attempt by network television - specifically NBC, although other networks are apparently invited to join (and ABC and CBS have not as of yet) - to take control of how its content - its shows - can be viewed online. Not offline - this is not IPTV, where you can order up a show to watch on your 50 inch plasma - instead, it's a direct response to YouTube as the online home of every type of video. Instead of continuing only to demand the removal of network shows from other services, Hulu attempts to be the place to go to get them, and it makes its money back via advertising. In some ways it's a brand-new model, and inevitably in other ways it looks an awful lot like the old model.
From what I can gather, some of the best and most innovative features on Hulu include:
- It's free. Just like broadcast television
- An innovative advertising strategy includes allowing users, during certain shows, to choose which advertisement they want to see. For some this will be like the eternal damnation choice between being burned alive or drowned in a river of excrement, but it does move traditional television advertising a small step closer (at least) to custom marketing that viewers prefer.
- Hundreds of series, dozens of movies and web-only shows, and not just dated b-list material - even live professional sports (some of them as pay-per-view). Sounds good, right? Just by firing up a browser, you can watch The Big Lebowski, NBA basketball, Saturday Night Live or (a current favorite of mine) the Onion News Network, all in better-than-YouTube quality.
Have people been watching it? Yes - not only are there already millions of viewers, but according to Hulu CTO Eric Feng "more than 80 percent of the entire Hulu catalog is watched each week."
So what are the limitations, at least judging the beta?
- As mentioned, no downloads to your iPhone or XBox - this is online viewing only.
- Although a lot of cable networks are on board, two of the old "big three" or "big four" networks are missing.
- Certainly it would be unrealistic to expect the entire catalog of whole networks now to be available online, but even among the shows included, there are typically only selected episodes available at any given time, at least during the beta. The concept of "programming" has not gone away, and the reasons for providing only half a season of a given show, while not clear, seem to be about preserving sales for DVD and paid download.
That last point may be the make-or-break. If Hulu were to provide every episode of the most popular series, there would still be a market for downloading to watch on a portable device, or owning to play in a home theater. By not providing those episodes, they may have once again made it more appealing for viewers to go to the sources that violate copyright violoation.
But for now, expect Hulu to be a hot topic at NAB and throughout the year.