Hulu might just make it after all

If I could award an Emmy for outstanding performance in television, I’d have a clear winner: Hulu. The video site from NBC and Fox is my leading choice for product of the year. Hulu allows users to stream television shows from NBC, Fox, Comedy Central and select other networks. Most shows are available the day after they air on television. There is also a decent collection of classic television; I recently finished watching the first season of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. A small collection of movies rounds out the offering.

I wrote about Hulu when the partnership was announced last year:

The networks have many of the assets they need to deliver a compelling product — one much better than YouTube for copyrighted content. But I wouldn’t bet on it. And  I wouldn’t hold my breath on NBC and News Corp. making the summer launch date.

Although I was right about Hulu not making its launch date, I was wrong about its inability to deliver a compelling product. Unlike the music industry, which still refuses to acknowledge the turn of the century, the television networks have responded forcefully and credibly to the threat posed by YouTube.

Over the summer, I spent at least triple the time on Hulu as I did on YouTube. That will be even more skewed when the fall TV season kicks into high gear this week. The quality of the video is much better. Searching is also easier: unlike YouTube, you won’t see the same piece of content 12 times in search results. You also don’t have to weed through content that was taken down due to DMCA claims.

To be sure, there’s nothing truly innovative in Hulu. But the execution of what they do is great. The site is visually elegant and easy-to-use. You can subscribe to your favorite shows. You can embed videos on your blog. My favorite feature is the ability to create custom clips by dragging sliders.

Hulu does a good job (perhaps too good) of helping users discover content they might be interested in. There are some feeble attempts at social networking.

The networks are using Hulu to promote the fall season. Some shows, such as Knight Rider, were made available on Hulu before their television debuts to drum up interest.

Hulu is also doing some interesting things in advertising. More on that later.

As much as I like Hulu, I have a long wishlist:

  • Hulu on my TV. It’s hard to beat watching TV on a TV. A laptop display doesn’t cut it. Although my TV has a VGA input, that still means using the laptop to control playback. Hulu should seek to be on as many platforms as possible: Xbox, Tivo and Apple TV for starters.
  • Hulu on the go. There are times when I want to watch Hulu on my laptop. But those are also times when I’m disconnected — on a plane or a train. NBC offers downloads of many of its shows through NBC Direct; Hulu should do the same.
  • Local buffering of videos while watching. Unlike YouTube, you can’t buffer content. This deteriorates video playback quality by causing stuttering when you have inconsistent bandwidth. It also means that if you want to rewind, that video has to be restreamed. (This is more expensive for Hulu.) Even a two minute buffer would dramatically improve the experience.
  • More consistent content licensing. Hulu is at the mercy of its content providers for when content is made available and has to expire. Although many shows are available next day, shows like Monk and Psych are delayed eight days.
  • Fewer restrictions on embedded clips. Hulu clips expire along with the content, leaving holes in Web pages that embed videos. Although I wouldn’t expect full embeds to remain available, it would be nice to see exceptions for short clips.
  • Better descriptions in search results. “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: Thu, Sep 18, 2008” isn’t very helpful. The guest names should be included.

About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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