If you no longer feel forced to watch TV shows only at their appointed airtimes, you have TiVo to thank. A few years from now, when you get your favorite shows without thinking about what channel they're on — or even what service provider is carrying them to you — you'll have Hulu to thank. TV is changing again, bigtime.
On Tuesday, Hulu rolled out the first wave of its Plus service, a $10-per-month plan that stretches the TV-show-on-demand service in several ways. First, it gives you a much bigger library of TV. That'd still primarily be programming from ABC, Fox and NBC, its three corporate partners, but now it's not just current-season shows and clips, but entire series, past and present. Second, it extends Hulu to the living room, as software that will run on Samsung TVs and Blu-ray players and, eventually, Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360. And third, it takes Hulu mobile, by way of an app for iPhone and iPad.
(The service is still in an invite-only trial phase, but you can sign up and hope for the best here.)
If you've visited Hulu before, you know that it has ads that run at intervals throughout the show, not unlike an old-school broadcast. Alas, your 10 bucks won't make that go away. At least not now. But it will transform the way you approach your shows.
In the past, you had to hover over a laptop or figure out how to connect your computer to your TV to catch Hulu shows. By allowing shows to stream to your TV directly or through a Blu-ray player or game console — for the first time, in 720p high definition — Hulu's owners have made it a true living-room option.
Blu-ray players and even many TVs now come with Netflix on demand (another $10-per-month service) and one of the many pay-per-view movie services that stream new releases in HD for a rental fee of $4 to $6 per showing. By combining Hulu's network TV strength with the broad, quirky movie and TV catalog of Netflix, and layering over it fresh-from-the-box-office lineups from Vudu or Blockbuster on demand, you are effectively being handed an invitation to ditch your cable box.
You'd still have to pay for broadband service, but that's a given for most American homes right now, and even $10 for Hulu plus $10 for Netflix is far less than what most people pay their cable or satellite company for TV alone, and that's before they order anything that's pay-per-view.
To be sure, avid TV watchers will miss shows, especially niche cable programming. (No FX or Bravo, for example.) But isn't it better to pay little and miss a few, than to pay through the nose and then willfully ignore 98% of what's coming into your home?
Besides, HBO, arguably the best producer of cable programming, isn't just sitting there hoping you stick to the old way — its recently launched Go service streams video over the Internet to computers, provided your household already pays for the premium channels. Who's to say HBO won't eventually just sell Internet subscriptions directly to you?
The $10 also gets you access to Hulu on the iPhone and iPad. A Netflix app was available for the iPad when it shipped and, despite a few minor interface glitches, it was met with critical acclaim. Why? Because an iPad is ideal for individual enjoyment of movies and TV. It's not going to replace computers for anyone who wants to actually compute, but it will replace the laptops and netbooks of people who want to check email and Facebook, surf a few websites and watch TV. Hulu isn't joining the party — Hulu is bringing the party.
Hulu will also be on iPhones, but that is less compelling. OK, it might be cool in some circles to whip out a phone and show people that you can suddenly stream the big season three climax of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and 720p HD video will look right on the iPhone 4's "retina" display, but now that the iPad is in my life, I've given up watching movies on iPhones.
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Some nitpickers may argue that Hulu already does run on some mobile devices, those that support the full specification for Adobe's Flash video. But non-iPad tablets aren't really selling well at this point, and Google's Android devices are only just getting Flash support this summer. We'll have to see whether people check out Hulu's website on phones and tablets that didn't come from Apple.
As with any new freedom, there comes some complications. As a joint venture of three TV networks, Hulu's content flows mainly from those three spigots. Unless you're in one of the few American homes that still gets over-the-air TV signal, you pay your cable or satellite provider lots of money, much of which it shares with networks. So by paying an extra $10 for Hulu, you're effectively paying for some services twice.
(Before we get too deep, it's worth mentioning that msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal, which is currently being purchased by Comcast, a cable company. It is also probably worth mentioning that video advertising is one of this site's major money makers.)
On the computer, Hulu doesn't present much of a competitive threat to the ad-laden stuff flickering across your walls from your ever larger flat-panel set. But when it's on that same set, yeah, it's a conflict. How the Hulu directors deal with the conflict remains to be seen. Perhaps if they make money from their hybrid subscription-advertising model while the number of people cancelling their cable video subscriptions stays miraculously low, nobody will say anything. But if they suddenly hold all new TV programs for a week, or jack up the price to $30 a month, you'll know why.
This is good news
As a watcher of technology, I say Hulu Plus is very good news, despite the show availability snafus and fiscal hijinks that certainly lie ahead. Remember, TiVo didn't change the world by getting everyone to buy a TiVo. They actually changed the world by scaring the cable companies into giving everyone TiVos at a nominal extra cost.
Maybe the fact that Hulu isn't some renegade tech company but an experiment by superpowers will prove to be part of the good news: They have already figured out that we want our shows unconstrained, not tied to a schedule or a black box in our entertainment console. We want them on our tablets, on our phones, our game consoles, on demand. And if the price is right — this week it's $10 per month, plus countless ads — they will supply what we demand.
If you want to catch up with Wilson on Twitter to talk tech (or cooking), you can find him at @wjrothman.
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