Hulu: More Free Online TV & Movies

June 2008

I don’t know why I get excited about online TV, since I’m not much of a TV watcher. Even when I had cable TV I’d sometimes go for a couple months without turning it on. I think the excitement is simply knowing that there are a zillion options out there on the Internet in case I should get the impulse to watch.

And lately I’ve been excited about Hulu.com. It’s got the best content and interface that I’ve seen so far: over 100 full-length movies and full episodes of over 200 TV series. Free.

The site, a joint venture of NBC and Fox, has content from over 50 providers, including FOX, NBC, MGM, Sony Pictures Television, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, and more.

Current primetime TV shows such as “The Office,” “The Simpsons,” and “30 Rock” are available the morning after they air. And of course past episodes are also available. If you’re a fan of a classic TV programs, the site also has a trove, such as “Miami Vice” (44 episodes), the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” (46 episodes), and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” (59 episodes). Full-length feature films include The Usual Suspects, Ice Age, Sideways, Monty Python, Moonstruck, Planet of the Apes, and The Big Lebowski.

The site is ad-supported, so there you can expect commercials. But the interruptions seem minuscule compared to regular broadcast TV.

The site has some really neat features. At first I didn’t realize that the frame around the video contained controls that appear when you put your mouse over them. These controls let you switch to full screen, adjust the resolution, and “lower the lights” — make the screen gray except for the viewing area. You can even select clips and e-mail them to friends or to share them on sites such as MySpace and Facebook. You can also embed them on your web site. And the interface makes all these options extremely simple.

Other features include subscribing to alerts when new episodes or clips are added and setting up a viewing queue.

Hulu’s site says that they’ll be offering HD in the future, and they currently have some trailers online as samples. Their HD is awesome on my 24-inch iMac. Of course you’ll need a fairly powerful computer and at least a 2.5 MB Internet connection.

Note that if you choose to sign up, the default settings make you personal information public, such as your name and what series you’re subscribed to and what’s in your queue. You’ll likely want to change that.

Hulu has done a great job. And it’s just the beginning. All of the networks and content providers are scrambling to offer their fare online. ABC has its own impressive web site and offers some of its most popular shows online. It even has high-definition episodes of “Lost.” Again, it looked amazing full-screen on my iMac and shows the potential of online TV. CBS also offers full episodes of some of its programming as well as partnering with Joost.

One of the major areas of focus has been sports, and online viewing of live sports action is fast becoming an alternative to watching it on TV. One reason is that the Internet simply gives more choices.

Let’s say that your long-time favorite baseball team is the Cincinnati Reds, as is the case with my colleague David. There aren’t many opportunities to watch the Reds on TV, no matter how many sports channels your cable TV company offers. But he’s subscribed to MLB.com for $15 a month and can watch all their games, as well as his other favorite teams. The only time he’s unable to watch the games is when they’re playing a team in the region, such as the Chicago Cubs, in which case the game is “blacked out” in the local area such that he can’t watch it live. But he can still watch it after the fact.

For March Madness addicts, the Internet was a boon during the recent NCAA basketball tournament. Again, it’s hard to catch all the games you might like to see, simply because networks can’t broadcast them all or they are available only on lesser channels that your cable service doesn’t carry. But this year CBS made all the games available on their March Madness on Demand web site at NCAA.com. Free.

We’re rapidly approaching a point where on-demand sports for all your favorite teams or tournaments or whatever will be available, either via a subscription or ad-supported.

And we’re rapidly approaching a point where one doesn’t really need a TV or to subscribe to a cable TV service, thanks to the Internet cornucopia.

© 2008 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen