Is Hulu the future of television?

Culture and technology.
March 26 2008 2:29 PM

Hulu Hoopla

Is a new site the future of television?

Hulu. Click image to expand.
Watching TV shows on Hulu.com

For the past couple of years, TV and the Internet have existed in a pleasant state of harmony. If forced to watch live television (by breaking news, by sports), you could surf the Web during commercials and dull moments. The laptop-TV combo was ideal, enfolding you in a narcotic halo of constant information.

That ideal is becoming a memory, though. Web sites have sprouted video arrows where paragraphs once stood, and television is trying to figure out how to fit in online—where the kids hang out and the advertising dollars increasingly flow. Meanwhile, the people who run the television networks have had a chance to see what happened to the music labels. Because of MP3s, an entire generation expects to get songs for free. Television shows, which can be encoded into relatively small files, have long since fallen into the hands of peer-to-peer networks and the BitTorrent brigades. It's only a matter of time before Average Joe Internet starts downloading his favorite shows commercial-free.

But just as the Internet is poised to destroy commercial television, it may also rescue it. The life raft is called Hulu, a site that debuted this month. It demonstrates how TV might thrive in the Web environment of comments, ratings, and the wisdom of the crowds.

Back when YouTube launched in 2005, the site became a playground of copyrighted content, one that spurred new viewing habits. Missed The Daily Show? You knew that Jon Stewart's monologue would be on YouTube the next day. The site effectively functioned as a user-driven highlight reel of television, music videos, sports, and movies. It was on its way to becoming a vast content cloud of any visual moment that someone had a notion to upload. YouTube wasn't TV—it required you to lean forward into the screen rather than lean back and vegetate—but it was a lot more fun, and there weren't any commercials.

Enter the lawsuits. Viacom, et al., soon put the kibosh on most of the copyrighted content. If you wanted to watch the latest Andy Samberg SNL short, you had to go to NBC.com. Jon Stewart and Colbert moved to the Comedy Central site. The professional stuff was split up between places that often required registration and different kinds of players. Meanwhile, the loss of copyrighted content made YouTube seem more amateur and bizarre—the camgirls and the near-porn that had lurked on the margins were suddenly the main course. The site also lost its aura of totality. YouTube was no longer the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Video Universe.

Once the networks succeeded in getting their content pulled, they promised to launch a "YouTube killer." That turned out be an empty and inexact threat. YouTube didn't really need the "real" shows and movies to sustain itself. It soon developed its own freaky internal chemistry. (At this point, it's probably best to think of YouTube as a genre unto itself.) What we the people and the networks really wanted was a YouTube Pro—a site that would aggregate television shows and movies in one place and stream them in high-quality video.

With Hulu, Fox and NBC (and their partners) have launched the best YouTube Pro yet. The site puts the shows and movies front and center. No registration, no special players. Click on The Simpsons. Get TheSimpsons. You can watch in full screen. Recently, I couched myself with my laptop for a few episodes of 30 Rock. Hulu placed two ads in each episode at appropriate times—standard 30-second spots for Priceline.com (starring William Shatner). It was a pleasant way to watch TV—almost Swiss in its subtle consumerism. There was also an efficiency aspect that appealed, as I powered through a half-hour episode in 22 minutes. But, for someone raised on the old tube, it's somehow disconcerting to see TV on the computer screen. It's as if you're in college, and your friend who's the biggest partier shows up for the 9 a.m. econ lecture.

Hulu has been available to knowledgeable Web users for a while (people figured out the URLs for all the shows). And most computer-literate folks can watch anything they want on the Web, anyway, whether through BitTorrent or some other means. Hulu is about putting TV on the Web for the so-called "silver surfers" (aka old people), the lazy, the clueless, and the lunchtime prime-time crowd. Both the site's content and presentation are resolutely mainstream. The "price" you pay is that Hulu's offerings are limited to Fox, NBC, and their partners, and that the site sneaks commercials into and around the shows in a modest way.

If Hulu catches on, there will be more ads and a less pleasant viewing experience—especially considering the trend that the more time you spend on the Internet, the less TV you watch. But what's most tantalizing about Hulu is how it throws shows such as The Simpsons, House, and American Dad and movies such as The Big Lebowksi and Some Like It Hot into the wilderness of Web 2.0. Hulu users can rate the content and leave comments. Like YouTube, the shows are collected in lists of "Most Watched Today" and "Most Watched All-Time." The movies are broken into clips that can also be rated and compiled into most-watched lists.

For Hulu to become a true YouTube Pro—a site with complete movie and television archives—would require a historic level of corporate cooperation. For now, the site reminds us of the joys of television as a communal experience—One Nation, Under Pop Culture. With TiVos and DVDs, everyone is time-shifted. You've got one friend who's watching The Office Season 2 and another who's savoring every season of Gilmore Girls. What Hulu could do is create a global top 10 list. Here are the shows and clips that everyone is watching. Discuss.

So far, the most popular episodes reflect the limited offerings and the geekiness/maleness of the early adopters: The Simpsons, Family Guy, The Girl Next Door. But when the voting and commenting crowds arrive, and more women show up, and more shows and movies get added, Hulu has the chance to be a fascinating microclimate. What's the all-time best episode of The Simpsons? What's the most exquisite moment in Bring It On? If I were to watch only one Facts of Life minisode, which should it be? No more will these questions trouble us in our sleep.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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