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ISSUE 121 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 5/2/2008

Hulu takes on YouTube

By Matt Everhart
Staff Writer


Friday, May 2, 2008

The Internet and television have had a somewhat contentious relationship so far. Besides the problems of pirating shows for free, video-on-demand services on network TV websites were one of the biggest contributing factors to the recent writers' strike. Writers felt they were getting the short end of the stick because they weren't getting paid for viewers watching the newest episodes of shows like "The Office," "Lost" and "Heroes" online. Until now, there hasn't been any official, central website for shows from a variety of networks to be shown online.

Hulu.com was originally supposed to be launched last fall as an experimental video-on-demand, ad-supported website formed by NBC Universal and News Corp. (owners of Fox), but it was delayed by the writers' strike. Exactly a month after the strike ended on February 12, 2008, Hulu.com was launched with TV shows from NBC, Fox and their cable networks, along with several full-length movies. Hulu offers both full-length episodes and short clips of shows under the NBC or Fox umbrella, and most of the featured videos are relatively new.

Much like YouTube, Hulu uses Flash video to encode their videos so they load up quickly and don't need to run a separate application outside of the browser; similarities to YouTube, however, end there.

Hulu's video quality is higher, the site carries full episodes of new shows, and most importantly, it's all legal because all the videos are ad-supported. If you've watched a show on NBC or ABC's website you'll be familiar with online video ad-support: Short, unskippable ads play during the video you're watching at the appropriate commercial breaks. While the ads are slightly annoying, they're usually only 15 or 30 seconds each, three to five times per episode.

Also, the video player's interface is simple and smooth, and white dots on the progress bar tell you when commercials are coming.

In terms of selection, Hulu.com is a work in progress that shows a lot of promise. At first I was overwhelmingly delighted by the amount of content on Hulu, but then I hedged my glee after digging a little deeper.

Some shows like "Arrested Development" and "Firefly" have every full-length episode uploaded, but this is the exception rather than the rule: Most shows feature only the most recent season or from the past month, and sometimes even less than that. For some shows, this makes sensethere are currently over 500 clips from Saturday Night Live that span several decades, but no full length episodesbut for others, it's a great disappointment. Bravo's "Top Chef," for example, features hundreds of clips from the past four seasons, including web-exclusive interviews, but has only one full-length episode. It's tough to determine trends for what's online and what's not; it seems to be, as I said earlier, a work-in-progress.

Video quality is going to be an important factor in drawing viewers away from YouTube, but many of the clips don't even match those on standard-definition television. There's a section for high definition content on the site that promises more in the future, but for now it's a dumping ground for movie trailers you can find at other sites. Hopefully we'll see more HD content in the future, especially after 2009 when networks are required to broadcast in HD only.

Hulu.com also hosts some full-length movies for free, which definitely raised my eyebrows until I saw the movie selection. In short: it's not great. There are some quality movies on here"28 Days Later," "Requiem For a Dream" and "The Big Lebowski" are standoutsbut most of the full-length options are forgettable at best, embarrassing at worst ("Weekend at Bernie's"? Really?).

There are clips from a number of other big-name movies like the X-Men trilogy, "Live Free or Die Hard" and "Little Miss Sunshine," but these clips didn't exactly blow me away.

Some other noteworthy content includes full-length episodes of "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," lots of NBA clips and even 10 full-length games (including Kobe's 81-point game) and clips from popular NBA or News Corp-owned websites like The Onion and IGN, but again the selection is stunted. Only the past week's episodes of Conan are available, the most recent full-length NBA game is from the end of the regular season (where are the playoffs?), and some clips from websites actually direct you to the website, taking you out of Hulu.

Lastly, Hulu has video-sharing features with a number of social networking sites, including Facebook and Myspace, along with the ability to embed videos in blogs. Currently, there's no ability for users to upload their own videos, which is the biggest difference between Hulu and YouTube: All video content comes from the networks, not users.

Hulu.com is a work in progress with tremendous potential. Currently, that potential isn't being met; many shows are incomplete or inexplicably have only one or two full-length episodes up. Clips are nice, but viewers want full episodes for most shows. The selection of movies is anemic at best, and feature image quality that doesn't come close to DVD, much less Blu-Ray. It's a step in the right direction for TV-on-the-Internet, and if NBC and Fox step it up and fulfill the potential of this website, we could have the next YouTube on our hands. As of right now, however, Hulu.com has a long way to go.





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