“Watch your favorites. Anytime. For free,” the clever company slogan said. At my fingertips, I have access to a vast catalog of hundreds of TV shows and movies offering thousands of hours of content. What more could satisfy my ravenous appetite for quality entertainment? Visions danced in my head of not being bored by my satellite TV selection anymore, and finally finding distractions for all of my missing shows that are on strike-induced hiatus.
Hulu launched on March 12 to the general public, so I’ve spent time since then taking a ride on the online streaming bandwagon. It all sounded so exciting, so cutting edge. This is the future that media companies like Time Warner, NBC Universal, News Corp, and Disney are touting, all while committing large amounts of capital with hopes of big payoffs. So, after five days, am I still riding that wagon, or did I jump off screaming?
All Those Choices
While Hulu offers an easy to use interface, it’s not all it seems. In getting familiar with the site, I examined in great detail the content. As they claim, there’s a good amount of content, but what’s there is hardly comprehensive. In browsing through the “Popular Shows” section, there are nineteen pages of TV show icons. There’s a nice variety of programs, including several old classics that escaped my mind a long time ago, but the episode and clip selection deflates those offerings.
The first show I selected was one I remember from my youth for having that cool car, Starsky and Hutch (I saw that car in Vegas, by the way, and it’s even better in person). I was too young to watch the show when it aired, so now I have an opportunity to see it without going through the hassle of renting DVDs. Or maybe not. There were 37 episodes listed, all of season one, a scattered selection of season two, and one episode in season four. Several of the shows’ listings are like this, making me wonder what the selection process was for submitting episodes. The further I went, the more meager the choices became. The icons showed CNET clips, including bad ones from this year’s Detroit Auto Show (where are all the American cars?). Mrs. Piggle Wiggle? Paradise Hotel? Kojak 2004? I didn’t know they remade that one, and I’m glad I missed it. I found lots of clips of wrestling and beauty pageants, replays of college bowl games, and some show I never heard of involving one of the Queer Eye guys. Everything else became a blur.
In browsing the alphabetical list, many shows only contained clips, including one of my beloved programs, Scrubs. House had only one episode, three show clips, and a few interviews. Heroes had the first five episodes from season two. Those were the ones that stunk. Couldn’t they have shown the last five instead? The Simpsons had nine episodes, which isn’t much considering they’ve made over 400. ER had three episodes and six clips, all from season 14. Weren’t there 13 seasons before it? Then, I was delighted to see one of my all time favorite shows, WKRP in Cincinnati. My joy quickly turned to disappointment though when I found the episodes were from season one only, which I already have on DVD. Why not offer episodes from seasons two, three, and four, which aren’t on DVD yet?
I went onto the movies next, and that list is far less robust. Only half of the films listed are in their entirety. One film I chose to test is a favorite in our family, Ice Age. I had the DVD less than five feet away, but wanted to see how Hulu compared. Even though I’m running my Internet connection from a high-speed DSL line, the stream was often plagued with quick interruptions and made for choppy viewing. Granted, I was watching in the evening, which is likely peak time, but that still took away from the experience. I found by comparison that nothing beats the full screen video quality of the original DVD. I watch full length films for entertainment and not for background noise while I’m performing ten other tasks, so watching films on Hulu will not be part of my immediate future.
That brought me back to the TV shows. Since many of the shows had clips, I sought out the clip-friendly shows, such as The Simpsons, in which the episodes contain many small nuggets of comedy that are legendary. Only 91 clips were listed, and those came from seasons one, four, six, seven, and 19. Seasons eight through 18 were made, right?
I Found Something to Watch
Eventually, I found the perfect show to fully bend the Hulu interface and let this site prove itself to me — Saturday Night Live. This show is in season 33, and Hulu offers 477 clips going back all the way to season one. The only season missing clips was the infamously horrible season six, and I’m sure many viewers were grateful.
Considering I’ve watched SNL since the first season, I took interest in older clip choices. The list comes up in random order. I wanted to sort from season one on, and sorting through 32 seasons worth of material gave Hulu a workout. I clicked on the season:episode field, and 10 seconds later the sort defaulted automatically to the most recent season first. When I clicked on the field again so it would sort the other way, there was no indicator that a sort was in process, making me believe I couldn’t do that. 20 seconds later, when the sort did eventually work, it took me by surprise since I’d already started scrolling through the list.
A great feature revealed itself when I moved arrow over the clip title and a little thumbnail box appeared showing a small picture and a description. That feature is extremely useful when pouring through hundreds of clips that haven’t been seen by a viewer in years. Warning though, for anyone that has a popup blocker on their IE browser, turn it off for this site, otherwise you’ll be inundated with popup warning messages and won’t get the full use of the site’s functionality like the above-mentioned thumbnail feature. I learned the hard way.
After messing with the sloppy sort and popup blocker issues, I found a delightful clip from season one, clicked on it, and an ad loaded instantly. I could praise them for the speed of the ad loading, but an ad before and after every two or three minute clip instantly tainted the experience for me. I know there is a price for free online content, but they need to scale back the ads with clips at least. After enduring that fifteen second annoyance, the video I wanted loaded quickly, and I was joyfully reliving the brilliant comedy that once existed on this show.
Once my clip was done, I went back to my list to check out more, only to find my sort was lost and I had to go through that tedious process again of sorting by season:episode, having it come up in reverse order in 10 seconds, and waiting 20 more seconds, uncertain if the ascending sort was working before it finally did. I played another clip, got another ad, saw the two minute video, got another ad, lost my sort, and wondered how long I could endure this process, considering I had 32 seasons to go through. I gave up before hitting season two, and just went through the list selection without playing any clips.
Through no fault of Hulu, video quality for these early shows is terrible. I guess networks weren’t taping in HD back then. When I picked a clip from a few weeks ago, the full screen quality was actually good, and small screen viewing was fantastic. Of course, the jumpy feeds that I got with the movies happened while viewing clips as well, and that became obvious in full screen. Another annoyance, on top of the many ads, every once in a while an ad logo appeared in the lower right hand corner. While this is irritating during a regular TV show, on a small screen online, it’s even more noticeable.
It’s Not All That Bad
Hulu does have its pluses. One major bonus of this test is that I did love seeing all those old SNL clips again. It took me back to the glory days of the show, you know, when it was fresh, exciting, and funny. The selection is very spotty though, especially in the Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, and Will Ferrell years. How could they not have the clip of Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze auditioning for Chippendales? Or not including the infamous “More cowbell!” cry during the mock Behind The Music for Blue Oyster Cult? However, the site gets huge bonus points from me for including my all time favorite sketch, Eddie Murphy’s brilliant profile of Buckwheat’s assassin, John David Stutts. Damn you, Hulu, for making me laugh so hard again that I nearly suffered intense physical peril!
I was also impressed by the video quality in recent shows I came across on the site. These shows were displayed in widescreen HD (or at least high quality digital), and the picture was almost as good as if I watched on my widescreen TV. Hulu also did a great job in accomplishing one of its main purposes, providing easy-to-use buttons allowing users to link videos via email, social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook or Digg, and embedding links to personal websites or blogs. Of course the clips link back to Hulu, which then plays ads before each one. I do wonder if YouTube would have been as successful if their links played ads before each clip. I also question if that will force some users to think twice about linking clips to Hulu. Of course, they will likely put up with the ads if that’s the only place the content can be found, and the advertisers know that.
I liked how movies with an R rating weren’t allowed to be played unless the user created an account and logged in. From my understanding, some films had the bad parts edited anyway, but at least they were aware of streaming content to sensitive eyes.
I found the site most useful though when I discovered a recent Simpsons episode on my TiVo didn’t record because NASCAR ran late (a recurring problem for FOX on Sundays with football, too). It was nice to go to Hulu and easily play the show. The picture was still jumpy here and there, but the bright colors and sharp video from this animated program did stand out nicely on the site.
What About the Rest of the World?
The biggest complaint I've read by far within the online community is that Hulu cannot be accessed outside of the US. That presents an understandable limitation. For one, advertisers are selling products in the US and won't get as much benefit from a viewer in Germany seeing their ad. Second, many of the episodes and clips are of shows that haven't aired in other countries yet and likely won't for up to six months or more. TV studios can't risk their syndication deals with foreign television stations by providing the shows first online, even though people in these countries are finding ways to get copies of the episodes anyway.
The best solution is to offer a different website with different content for each country, but that model involves significant time and resources, thus making it several years away. There lies the big disadvantage in chasing this whole new cash cow of ad-supported online streaming. The big media companies are forgetting that the Internet is a global medium. Again, that fact wasn't lost on YouTube.
As with any product or service using clever marketing slogans to make us believe it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, living up to the hype is a near impossible task. All in all though, Hulu is a nice start. I didn't spend countless hours on their site like they said I would, but I'll go back here and there when I'm looking for something specific, or to see how they are progressing with adding new content. In the meantime, I'm happy with the HD quality shows on my TiVo. I can fast forward through those unwanted ads.