Last Wednesday, Hulu.com officially opened for business, offering up free-with-ads video on demand through the browser. The project is a joint venture of NBC and News Corp. Here now a quick look at how Hulu changes the online video-on-demand picture.
A few short years ago, I would have told anyone that video over the Internet was little more than a curiosity. Grainy, postage stamp-sized windows, endless rebuffering, and choppy, out-of-sync audio was the typical experience–given that there was another electronic box in the living room called a “television,” Internet video hardly seemed worth the effort.
That was then, this is now–and Hulu joins Apple’s iTunes Music Store, Netflix, ABC.go.com, Amazon Unboxed and others in actually providing a viable alternative to the TV Set for watching television shows and movies on your computer.
Hulu is different from paid online video like Apple and Amazon in that it’s free, obviously. The programs have what Hulu calls “limited” commericial interruptions, and to be fair, unlike regular TV, the commercial breaks that I saw were limited to one 30-second ad, inserted at the usual place you might find them while watching a TV program. You can pause, go back, and skip ahead to other parts of the program–it seems likely that one might be able to avoid the ads if you were determined to do so, but I found that the advantage of watching a TV show with ads on my computer over watching on TV was that I could simply pop open another browser window and listen for the end of the ad while I checked my email or caught up on my blogs. For now, to a lazy person like me, hacking my way around the ads seems like it might not be worth the bother.
Picture quality, while not high-def, is certainly acceptable on my 15-inch laptop screen, and you can open the window to full screen if you like, or pop the video out into a separate window. It’s also nice that Hulu’s web page works just fine on my Mac in Firefox, which I like.
Now the mechanics of the video experiences are certainly important, but worthless if there is nothing worth watching. What is on Hulu tonight? As a joint venture of NBC and Fox, expect to see a lot of programming from those networks. Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, Family Guy, The Office and House are on the most popular TV shows. Popular movies include Titan A.E., The Incredible Hulk, Master and Commander, as well as some oldies like the Jerk and camp classics like The People that Time Forgot–in short, we’re not talking newly released hits, but even here at launch, there should something that you would mind sitting through that you never got around to seeing.
After all, Hulu is free. Mathematically, free is a lot cheaper than 2 or 3 or 4 dollars that you could pay to rent a movie or buy an episode of a TV show from Apple or Amazon. And even though 3 bucks, to pick the median price for a rental, isn’t a lot, it is still 3 I could choose NOT to spend, especially if there is something on Hulu. For free.
Someone with a better education in business math could draw this correlation better than I could, but here is where Hulu is getting it right and Apple and Amazon might be getting it wrong.
Apple has correctly figured out that when it comes to music, people would rather own, not rent. iTunes’ 99 cent songs hit the sweet spot of what seems like a fair price for a song. And per track pricing allows many people to save money when buying music by allowing customers to buy just the tracks they want, instead of buying an $18 album to get 3 good songs.
Movies and videos a different, though. A 3-minute, 99 cent song is a better investment in entertainment than a one hour TV show that costs $1.99, because I will listen to a song many times. but I’ll probably only watch a TV show once. And for the shows and movies that I really do like and may watch again, the pricing model works against digital downloads, because the more I like a TV shows or a movie, and the more I am willing to buy the video, the LESS likely I am to buy it digitally. I am going to spend more money to get a physical disk with special features, higher video quality, and I so I can have something tangible to put in my collection.
Hulu, on the other hand, has the right content for the right price. When am I going to watch TV on Hulu? When I am home, after work, checking email and my blogs, I’ll pop open Hulu program, and multitask. I won’t care that I am half paying attention, because it’s free.
Hulu does have a couple shortcomings. Content is somewhat limited, for now anyway. It seems unlikely that the catalog is going to branch beyond NBC and Fox offereings, The other is that I am tied to my laptop to watch. I can’t load it my iPod and take it to the gym, and the library could improve, which it will.
Bottom line: Hulu doesn’t suck. Check it out.