NBC and Fox's Hulu is way, way, way better than major media corporations usually are when they take a stab at beating a homegrown phenomenon on the Web. I'll hope to get into some of the reasons why I think it's a big step forward for entertainment on the Web this weekend (when I should finally have some time to write, thank goodness), but for now, just go and play around with it. So far, my favorite feature is that it lets you edit down clips to post just what you want on your blog or Web site (hence the terrifically bizarre Lou Grant credits above, something I would have loved to have had access to during the top 100 project).
Actually, that's a lie. My favorite feature is the surprisingly extensive library, which rolls up many, many Fox and Universal properties (as well as a few from Sony and MGM) and posts not just clips (as I initially understood Hulu was going to be) but full episodes of an impressively diverse number of shows, ranging from cult sitcoms like Newsradio to massive hits like House to Web hits like Family Guy to cultural oddities like the TV series they made of the Fudge books. Assuming they get the complete runs of more series on the service (only one-season wonders and Arrested Development have their complete runs up there now -- one of my few complaints), Hulu and services like it are going to make TV scholarship a lot easier -- something comparable to how DVD made film scholarship a lot easier. Putting a whole season of Hill Street Blues on DVD is still a considerable expense. Throwing it up online doesn't cost nearly as much. You can put stuff up there that has a minimal fan base, and it's not going to matter if the ad revenue isn't spilling in to it because something like The Simpsons is going to more than cover it. That's why Lou Grant, a series that was never really seriously considered for DVD (what with it being a mostly forgotten drama that never really caught on in syndication), is up there. Or, hey, St. Elsewhere.
Hulu's not perfect. I don't mind having to watch ads, but the way the service forces you to watch them when you're just searching for a particular part of an episode is sort of annoying, as are the occasional banner ads for Chili's popping up across the bottom of the classic Sliders episode you're watching. Also, the library is probably the best of its sort online, but it's still pretty sparse when you look at the whole of TV history. Here's hoping the other majors get on board or start their own services. Finally, the library in the movies section is INCREDIBLY sparse and leans too far toward the "oddity" side of the scale. If you're not a TV buff, and you're looking forward to watching movies online, there's not going to be a lot there for you.
But the absolute best thing about Hulu is the promise it holds that advertiser-supported TV can survive online. What's more, if things this sharp and clear (even in full-screen video -- which is not perfect but way better than YouTube full screen) can be this easy to use (no pop-up windows, no real hang-ups on a suitably fast connection), it offers promise to the idea that independent TV can finally rise up on the Web as something beyond the collection of five-minute sketches it is right now. If you could raise a couple hundred thousand dollars to shoot eight episodes of a sitcom and you knew you had the scripts to pull it off, something like Hulu would make a natural showcase for it, without the overhead problems on a major network. Things like Hulu are going to niche-ify TV even more than it already is, but if there's good stuff to be found in those niches, I'm game.
Hulu, so far, is closed off to the public, so you won't get the crazy, homespun charm of YouTube or Google Video (no 9/11 conspiracy theorists or wide-eyed Japanese girls staring at their cameras here!). Hulu is a decidedly slick product, but it's a good kind of slick, like iTunes. It has a kind of swagger to it, knowing that it has the scripted entertainment content you've always wanted from YouTube, and it's going to make it easy for you to find it, so long as you'll put up with a short ad. I've always been skeptical that YouTube was the future of television because it has so many restrictions that work against the creation of the kinds of narrative and artistic works that humans have always tended to prefer. The real future of television probably lies somewhere between YouTube and Hulu, but now that we have the two endpoints, we can find the ground in the middle that our kids will take for granted.
Or, if nothing else, I can just turn this blog entirely over to Simpsons clips.
(On a personal note, sorry I've pretty much disappeared. There are some extreme personal situations going on in my life right now that have made writing a real bear. I'm going to try and start getting some content up again, so keep checking back through the month of March. Thanks for your understanding.)