Hulu Review: What It Is and What It Should Be (Good, and Better)

We've been playing around with News Corp. and NBC's answer to internet video, Hulu, for a couple of days, letting the low-traffic, buttery smooth launch day stretch out more into real time and real traffic conditions before we let loose with our judgment. Let's get this out of the way: YouTube killer it ain't. Same genus, different species.

As Ars called it, Hulu is a "corporate sandbox" loaded with content from NBC, News Corp., Sony, MGM, as well as their various subsidiary channels like FX, Sci-Fi Channel and so forth, offering anything from full episodes of Battlestar Galactica and Buffy to SNL Digital Shorts and an entire Russell Crowe flick, Master & Commander. It's Flash-based, it streams, just like YouTube, and it's ad-supported, with bumpers and "commercial breaks," just like the TV it's trying to ape. resume.pngDespite the potential of being a corporate bomb, Hulu actually succeeds in a lot of ways. For one, the interface is pretty slick, the site itself not overwrought and easy enough to navigate, which is something of a miracle given how FUBAR productions of this sort typically turn out. The animations are smooth, with lots of scrollover popups and transparency, and buttons for all of the few things you can do with a video. Grays and blacks surround the video in a widescreen format, making it easier on your eyes. Video and sound are clean, the 520x295 resolution for widescreen format clips definitely tolerable for the 42 minutes required to watch House or the like. More importantly, the streams have been exceptionally smooth. Bouncing around within vids is snappy, on few occasions taking longer than a second, and more often than not instantaneous. However, and it might be my imagination, video isn't quite as nice as it was on launch day a few days ago—a touch more pixellated—and seeking takes a bit longer. Still impressively small, more noticeable potential deal killer here, the ads. (Also the best reason to wait for a review: I saw nary a frame of ads on launch night.) Their timing seems to be totally random. The initial three-second bumper is painless, promising "limited commercial interruption" thanks to X sponsor. But the in-show ad—so far in my experience no more than one 30-second clip per episode—could come at any time: within seconds of the bumper, halfway through, the first time you click ahead or so on. In that sense, it's maddening.

So why put up with ads? The content—and that's where Hulu's value and potential lies, but also its biggest shortcoming. Ars' problem with Hulu was the fact that it was a sandbox. I don't think that's necessarily bad, depending on what's in the sandbox and the playground rules—and what you expect to get out of it. I actually don't care to pull content out of Hulu's garden, beyond embedding clips on Gizmodo—I just want to be able to catch the Heroes ep I missed or peek a show I've heard about with a couple of clicks and no waiting.

Shortfall #1: It doesn't put shows up quickly enough after they air. It's still faster to grab a torrent right after Heroes airs on the East Coast than to wait for it to drop on Hulu (not that I've done that, lovely denizens of NBC's legal department). Solution? Air it on both simultaneously. It'll also help solve the tricky dilemma of measuring new vs. old, medium-shifting viewers.

Shortfall #2: It's an incomplete archive, with new episodes pushing off older ones. This is a balancing act because they don't want to cannibalize TV-on-DVD sales, but personally, if I haven't already bought a series on DVD I'm not going to. For instance, Buffy Season One is available in its entirety, but nothing beyond that, even though I wanna watch the musical episode. Heroes now only stretches back to the second ep of the current season.

The truly bold step to take in this little experiment is to throw open the content doors: Put up everything, and watch what happens. My guess is that it wouldn't adversely affect DVD sales—maybe iTunes, but according to NBC, they weren't making any money there anyway. Hell, throw in two thirty-second spots per clip, but bump the resolution. In other words: Make it more like TV.

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