A Breakthrough for TV on the Web

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.

In addition to a wealth of content from hit shows like "House" and "The Simpsons," there are even a few movies scattered among the Hulu offerings, such as "Master and Commander" and "Sideways." Best of all, there are good canceled shows like "Arrested Development" -- a critical favorite that never found much of an audience when it was on the air.

A little back story: Last year, NBC took its programs off iTunes, saying that it wanted more money for letting Apple carry its content. NBC chief executive Jeff Zucker urged other networks to take a similar stance or suffer the same fate as the music business, whose pricing models have been "destroyed" by Apple, in Zucker's words.

Apple's video selection at iTunes, now that NBC has taken away its content, looks a little skimpy to my eyes. Sure, there's some reasonably fresh stuff, but I'm always a little surprised when I fire up the iTunes video store and find nothing to spend my gift-card money on. "The Fall Guy"? "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"? Say what?

My favored online video content delivery service has been the one attached to the Xbox 360. I used it regularly over the past few weeks to download and watch some Christmas favorites -- "Elf," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "A Christmas Story." However, this past week I've had trouble logging on to the Xbox Live service, and it's starting to give me the same level of desperate frustration that I thought only the Comcast service could provide. (Microsoft has acknowledged that Xbox Live has suffered some glitches over the last couple of weeks.)

Hulu hasn't announced when it will go "live"; a spokeswoman said it will be a matter of months before it opens the doors to everyone on the Web. Beta-testing accounts of the site's performance were a hot item among the techie crowd this past fall, and the company said testers now number in the hundreds of thousands.

The service will be free and supported by ads. So far, the commercials are far more tolerable than the deluge on network TV channels. Entire episodes of shows are sponsored by individual advertisers, such as Cisco, Nissan, Intel and Axe body spray. You can skip back and forth through an episode, but you can't skip the commercials.

I stopped watching network TV a while back because I couldn't stand all the commercials; I preferred to watch shows after they came out on DVD and Netflix dropped them in the mail. Now, instead of waiting for next year's DVD boxed set, I'm working through season two of "Heroes" with my wife.

Hulu is also nice for catching those shows that the critics raved about but you never got around to watching. I watched the entire run of the Andy Richter show "Andy Barker, P.I." on Christmas Eve on my work computer. Please don't tell my boss.

"The Daily Show" is scheduled to return to the air tomorrow night, though Jon Stewart will be winging it, working without his writing staff.

I don't plan to watch. After all, until the writers come back I can catch up on a huge backlog of programs over at Hulu.

Washington Post staff writer Catherine Rampell contributed to this report.

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