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SURF THIS: With Hulu, there's no need to jump through hoops

October 6, 2008

Reader beware: You may not have the willpower to resist the draw of Hulu. I realize that sounds a little strange, as if the service itself is drawing some sort of mind-melding power from Spock or exhibiting the addictive draw of caffeine.

The truth is far more sinister. This is television on demand-on steroids-with movies thrown in just to destroy any remnant of your ability to fight it.

I'm talking about Hulu (www.hulu.com), a joint venture of NBC Universal and News Corp. that is making the rest of the Internet players sit up and take notice. Founded in early 2007, Hulu garnered an investment of $100 million from private equity firm Providence Equity Partners in October 2007. This investment helped the service become what is today a divinely imagined user experience intended to make media accessible for the masses. The online service offers TV shows, movies and clips both on Hulu.comand other sites (think AOL, MSN, and more) all the time, all for free.

So imagine taking much of the programming out of your TV and making it available online. One of the first problems you'll encounter is the vast amount of material that needs to be organized and made accessible. Usability becomes a major factor of success or failure.

On that count, Hulu delivers. The content is compiled and sorted in ways that seem to evoke "Ah-ha!" moments. Everything is right where it should be, just where you expect it, and it happens without having to think about it. If you're looking for something specific, the search function serves it up quickly and efficiently. If you don't know what you want, browsing topics via channels, recent additions, most popular, collections, etc., makes it easy to find things to match your taste.

One click got me to the latest Saturday Night Live sketches. Two clicks took me to a menu of movies ranging from "Beach Blanket Bingo" to "Hair," from "Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie" to "Jackass 2.5." Full episodes of "The Daily Show," "The Addams Family" and "The Office" are easily found. It's not exhaustive, but it's impressive nonetheless.

Once you find what you want, the video player itself is another work of art. With multiple viewing options, you decide if you want to watch in the browser, full screen, or in a window. Many of the videos aren't high definition, but HD content is coming online as it's available. You can easily share the video (completely or just a clip) by sending an email or embedding it within your own site.

While it's true that becoming a Hulu addict (Huluite?) will tie a fairly significant umbilical cord between you and your computer, at least it severs the one between you and the television schedule and allows you to take back a little more control in your life. And in the way that Pandora helps you discover new music, Hulu can help you discover new shows you might like through the wide variety of clips and viewer ratings and recommendations.

Once you register, you can subscribe to your favorite shows to create an online queue. In a sense, it's like having an online digital video recorder without any associated fees or hard drive capacity issues. You can add individual shows to your queue or subscribe to an entire season; the choice is yours. You can also choose to have Hulu notify you when new episodes become available.

So throw away your TV Guide and pitch the listings in the newspaper. Hulu let's you watch what you want whenever you decide. Simply, beautifully built, just for you.



Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.
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