Don't look now, but the so-called clown company may get the last laugh.
Sure, Hulu.com is still saddled with a silly name. The video site started by NBC Universal and News Corp. also isn't packaged very well, and offers too few shows and too little to do outside of watching video.
But a review of a test version of Hulu, which launched Monday, reveals that Hulu nailed the basics. Fans of The Simpsons, Bionic Woman, or My Name is Earl can go to the site, click on a couple of links, and watch the TV shows in their entirety. The images are clear, free of any of the aggravations that sometimes plague streaming video, such as stalled pictures or pixilated images.
One thing is for sure: watching full-length episodes of Heroes and King of the Hill at Hulu is far superior viewing experience than watching grainy, five-minute clips at YouTube or other video-sharing sites.
I've heard all the reasons skeptics give on why Hulu is destined to fail. Big media companies simply don't get the Web. YouTube has all the users, most of whom aren't interested in watching long-form content online. The networks are better off allowing YouTube to promote their shows to a whole new generation. In the months leading up to Hulu's launch, critics and YouTube employees began calling the joint venture "the clown company."
Nonetheless, NBC and companies like Viacom have insisted on controlling their own material and distributing their shows online themselves.
Delivering high-quality images free of charge and providing simple site navigation is all mainstream TV fans need. They won't care that NBC decided last week to stop posting promotional clips on YouTube. They care about watching their favorite shows. They will go wherever they can do that; at Hulu.com or at any of the partner sites that have agreed to distribute Hulu's material, such as MSN, Yahoo, and AOL.
To be sure, Hulu needs work. The site featured a bare bones look, just a laundry list of show titles and thumbnails. Click on a link and a video player appears. Below the player are links to other recent episodes. Right off the bat, I felt myself wishing they offered shows from previous seasons. If you've never watched Heroes before, a show with lots of characters and subplots, good luck trying to get caught up on Hulu.com.
I also couldn't find any shows with commercials in them, and ads could go a long way toward spoiling the viewing experience if they're too intrusive. The good news for Hulu is that advertisers should love the service. They've been working with video for decades on broadcast TV. TV shows, not three-minute clips, are what advertisers understand.
The site could use some fan reviews or message boards, as well as a way to bone up on a show's plot and back story. Most importantly, Hulu need more shows. If the site is to become a true online video powerhouse, it has to offer content from CBS, ABC, and HBO.
Winning over those rivals won't be easy, but it could be vital to Hulu's success.