A Breakthrough for TV on the Web

Hulu is launching a service that will offer free access to TV shows. Viewers will be able to rewind and fast-forward -- but not skip the ads.
Hulu is launching a service that will offer free access to TV shows. Viewers will be able to rewind and fast-forward -- but not skip the ads. (Hulu)
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By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, January 6, 2008

"What's so funny?" asked a holiday e-card at the top of my Gmail inbox the other day, sent by a friend of mine who writes for "The Daily Show."

Punch line: "We'd tell you, but we're on strike."

Good one, Rob. We miss you -- and when I say "you," I mean Jon Stewart.

As anyone with a TV set knows well enough, just about all the good shows are either off the air or in writer's-strike-induced reruns. And never has such a chunky monthly bill from my cable provider seemed more like a waste of money.

Tech pundits have been quick to predict that the strike will have disastrous long-term effects for the networks, as hordes of viewers learn to surf to video content sites like YouTube for their yuks, or even -- eek! -- pick up video game habits.

Until recently, I was a little skeptical about all that. Networks have tried luring viewers to their Web sites for years, after all, on pages saddled with clunky interfaces and featuring oddball "webisodes" that never seemed to click. Who wants to watch TV on a computer monitor, anyway?

But with an upcoming service called Hulu ( http://www.hulu.com), the offerings are getting to be rather decent. I was impressed by the service, even when I plugged my computer's monitor cable into my 46-inch LCD TV to check out a few episodes of shows like "30 Rock" and "Family Guy." The picture quality was a little grainy at points, but I found that you can still fully enjoy "The Office" without always being able to read the posters on the wall at the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin.

And, by gosh, does the Hulu interface beat the convoluted menu I have to navigate to watch shows "on demand" from Comcast.

Hulu isn't the only service trying to accomplish the streaming-video trick, not by a long shot. Another company, called Vudu, recently hit the market with a well-reviewed set-top device designed for buying and downloading videos; the movie rental service Netflix announced this past week that is jumping into this fray with a device that is scheduled to become available late this year.

There are even a few local contenders in this general space. A McLean company called XStreamHD will soon launch a service that will stream video from satellites on demand. Another local company, Tinsel Cinema of Falls Church, seeks to grab the market for Web-connected Bollywood fans.

With such an array of options, some already pretty good, it seems that something's gotta stick. This could be the year when the tech forecasters stop talking about watching TV online and some folks -- the early adopters, anyway -- start doing it on a regular basis.

Hulu is a joint venture owned by NBC Universal and News Corp. After a week or so of checking out the service, which is still in a closed testing period, I can safely say that I like it enough that I don't want to go back to trying to figure out how to navigate through all the clutter on the channels on my TV set.

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