Hulu, the online video project from Newscorp and NBC/Universal, with participation by Sony, MGM and others, has begun its highly controlled opening to the public this week. The Hollywood-content-only, wildly over funded project is opening up a private beta to a few thousand users it told reporters before a midnight EST embargo this morning.
Amazingly, none of those reporters appear to have been included among those few thousands with actual access to the site - all reporting I've seen has been based on a WebEx demo at most. It can be awfully messy to let industry experts actually touch your technology months before it's opened to the general public. When I say general public, I mean in the United States - it appears that people outside the US cannot view the videos. This is the future? If you live in the US you can watch old episodes of TV on the internet?
You won't likely be able to interact with the Hulu site for months but much of the content is available on other sites, in their video players, now. An embedded example is available below the fold - US residents only please!
This Launch is Unimpressive
Let's be honest: there's nothing courageous or innovative about Hulu - the whole project is quite the opposite in fact. Huge media is exposing its crown jewels to the web because it has to - much as they wish it wasn't, this internet thing is real. The initial offering that Hulu is bringing to market is shamefully uninspiring and woefully inadequate for a new world of media. If you haven't found any other online video that you enjoy and you've been eagerly awaiting the day that the gloss of old-Hollywood's push-media experience would come to the web, then your lucky day will be here in a couple of months.
No user generated content (not even best-of), no desktop player or download of material (it's all in a Flash player) and very little viewer interaction is enabled. Viewers are allowed to select which section of the precious Hollywood content they are most in love with, that section or the whole video can then be shared with a friend or embedded on a website. This is just a multi-partner content deal with paltry technology behind it and a whole lot of money for marketing. Nothing innovative to get excited about.
Dragging Their Feet
Content will be available on Hulu at Hawaii time on the day after they air, at the earliest. As reported by Kara Swisher, who wrote an otherwise good, critical post on Hulu with an inexplicable conclusion that it will shake up the industry - only the 5 most recent episodes of current TV shows and less than a dozen movies will be available on the site.
Liz Gannes, who provided the smartest coverage on the sneak-preview I've seen so far, says that the biggest nod to remix culture comes in this move: "Hulu has enlisted film school students to edit together mashups of its content; one featured clip combines various times Homer Simpson has said 'DÄôoh.'" Gannes also provided a list of programming content in PDF format, complete minus subsequent Sony and MGM content. That's one page in three columns of show names and two pages of participating media brand logos. Thankfully we'll be spared advertising at a frequency made standard on the box - Gannes says Hulu will run ads at about 25% the standard rate of TV. Is that TV with or without Tivo?
What It Could Have Been
Here's just a quick sampling of things that Hulu could have done with their piles of money and professionally produced content.
A really solid desktop player with DRM free, ad supported content downloads would have been great. These people's stranglehold on our attention is not nearly so safe that they can continue giving us the bare minimum of access.
A recommendation engine would make sense if there was any serious catalog of content. Perhaps Hulu is of the belief that we should all adore their every drop of content, though, and thank our lucky stars to be able to embed any of it in full-episode format on our MySpace pages.
Hulu could have been a great first opportunity to put Flash Light on the mobile to the serious test. How about some live video streaming? There are some hard technologies being brought to market - why not lead the way on them the way the networks lead the way in bringing TV into our lives so many years ago?
There are doubtless hundreds of ways that a social layer could have been implemented, it could have been borrowed from countless models already explored by startups like StumbleUpon, Twitter or Last.fm.
Hulu could have done something important. Maybe it still will in the months before it actually goes live to the public. I wouldn't bet on it though; all that money and potential will likely be squandered on brand fear, legal foot dragging and a dangerously inflated sense of self importance by the participating companies.