NBC and News Corp.'s long-anticipated video distribution site, Hulu, is nearly ready to make its public debut. The service launched as a private beta last night, allowing a limited list of invitees access to the streaming TV shows and movies available so far through the site. Some—but not all—of the videos contain limited advertising, and users can link or embed full videos anywhere on the web.
Even those who don't have access to the main site through the private beta can check out some of the videos available. Hulu has an entire channel at AOL Video, and anyone can see and even embed videos that are shared by others. For example, any of you can share and embed the following episode of The Office even if you're not in on the beta:
Edit: The videos are only viewable to those in the US. Viewers whose IPs match up to something other than a US IP are given an error saying that the video cannot be viewed in their regions.
While the selection on Hulu is still growing, some of the videos available so far include episodes from 30 Rock, Battlestar Galactica, Bionic Woman, Heroes, The Office, Scrubs, and The Tonight Show, to name a few. There are also a few movies in the mix, like The Breakfast Club and Bulworth, although we are hearing reports that many of the full-length movies are in fact edited (akin to the "airplane versions" of the movies) and contain ads. Hulu’s current advertising partners include Cisco, General Motors, Intel, Nissan, and Toyota, although the service is sure to gain more partners before public launch.
The benefit to these ads, of course, is that the content is freely available to the viewer, and users can share the videos just as they can with YouTube. Since the videos are available through the web, they are also platform-neutral and easily accessible from Flash-compatible browsers. In our tests, video quality has been good and the streaming experience is extremely smooth—so far, we have not experienced any slowness or hiccups in service.
There are, however, a number of downsides. The most obvious to anyone who watches shows regularly on a computer screen is that embedded videos apparently cannot be resized and cannot be made full screen. Like the episodes available through NBC.com, it appears as if fullscreen capabilities are only available if you watch the videos directly through Hulu.
Helpfully, users can select certain sections of videos to share with friends (if, for example, there’s a particularly funny line in the middle of an episode of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader), but for now, Hulu only plans to keep a limited number of old episodes on the site as new episodes are posted (typically the morning after they air last in Hawaii time). Therefore, it’s unclear what will happen to embedded and shared copies of the videos—or clips of those videos—when those old episodes expire.
There is also currently no way to get these episodes onto a TV screen without the help of an HTPC—something that the general public does not typically have. And finally, users cannot download the episodes or take them on the road on a portable device, such as a Zune, PS3, iPod, iPhone, or even a regular old laptop. If you’re out of range of an Internet connection, you’re out of luck—hope you weren’t planning to watch those shows during your 14-hour flight. Hulu doesn’t even provide paid downloads of the episodes like you would get through iTunes—Hulu gets a cut of DVDs sold through the site, but otherwise it’s web or nothing.
Speaking of iTunes, Hulu is NBC’s first major initiative after its rather messy (and public) breakup with Steve Jobs & Co. The companies had a falling out over DRM restrictions and, more importantly, the pricing of videos sold through the media service in August, with NBC threatening to walk away at the end of the year. Apple decided that NBC’s threat was a no-go, and refused to allow NBC’s fall season onto the iTunes Store at all.
But NBC is confident that it’s better off without Apple (despite Apple being widely credited for "saving" The Office from cancellation), and has soldiered on in keeping users within its carefully-controlled Hulu. By not offering downloads of any kind, users cannot be tempted to edit out commercials or (*gasp*) share those offline videos with their friends. Instead, it hopes that its selection combined with its wide distribution network on AOL, MySpace, MSN, Comcast, and Yahoo will keep the masses satisfied.
Right now, Hulu offers content from NBC and Fox, but also recently struck a deal with Sony and MGM Studios. It also has contributions from 15 cable networks, including Bravo, SciFi, Oxygen, and USA. With so many popular shows available on-demand and for free, it’s easy to see that Hulu will likely have initial success. However, the service’s numerous shortcomings are sure to catch up with it eventually—that is, unless NBC figures out some way to get over its download-phobia and manages to allow content to be taken outside of its web-based sandbox.