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Hulu: Half finished

Hulu_logoAfter more than four months in an invitation-only Beta, Hulu opened to the public today with full-length episodes from about 200 current and classic TV shows, as well as a smattering of full-length movies. If you're interested in the Hulu inventory, the site is a nice way to experience it. The programming is all available on demand (albeit after lengthy loading times), the player's controls are great, and the commercial interruptions are less frequent than they are on TV (and in some cases, viewers get to choose between a long pre-roll and shorter interstitials). The video quality is high, even when blown up to full screen. And programs can be linked into playlists, although they don't function particularly well (the waits between clips are unforgivable). Still, Hulu is missing too many pieces to make it a truly compelling entertainment experience, which it will have to be if it wants to make a dent in online piracy.

I'll resist nit-picking and focus on four main issues:

  1. Missing content suppliers. Hulu owners News Corp. and NBC Universal have been unable to lure ABC, CBS, HBO, Showtime or PBS, among other popular sources of TV. Chances are, one of the shows you'd really like to watch is not available through Hulu. To its credit, Hulu's search engine includes links to shows available on other sites, including ABC's and CBS's.
  2. Limited episodes. For the shows it does carry, Hulu's a fine place to catch up with recent episodes you may have missed. Just don't fall very far behind, 'cause the inventory of current shows goes back only a month or so. So if you happen to come across, say, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" for the first time and watch to catch up from the beginning, tough luck! The cutoff may be designed to avoid triggering residuals or undermining DVD sales, but it's more likely to send viewers searching for online bootlegs (and they're not hard to find). The site also has a nasty habit of deciding suddenly to deny you access to just about everything, at which point you have to shut Hulu down and try again.
  3. Virtually useless program guide. This is a tough one for many online TV ventures. If you know what you want to watch, Hulu's UI works fine. If you don't, you're basically left to scroll through the database. That could be a function of Hulu's relative youth, but at the very least, Hulu should have some kind of preference engine to help people discover things they hadn't heard about.
  4. No easy way to reach the TV set. The networks' concern about piracy complicates the task of beaming Hulu from the PC to the TV. One solution that's expected soon: an updated version of the DivX Connected set-top box software will feature Veoh, which carries Hulu's programming.

There are larger business-model issues for Hulu, such as the fact that its streaming costs will go up as its audience grows (unless it switches to p2p streaming). Those costs could go through the roof if Hulu starts carrying episodes and movies in high def, which audiences eventually will demand. I also wonder why the site doesn't use technology that would allow it to insert targeted ads into the video streams, which could raise its CPMs and make the ads less repetitive and annoying.  Still, it's telling to me that, since I started visiting Hulu late last year, I don't bother using a VCR to record anything that I know Hulu carries. The Hulu experience on my PC is better than a taped show on my TV. That's a foundation Hulu can build on.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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