The computer gets more like the TV every day

You can see it on Hulu, but when? Now the online video service will tell you.
You can see it on Hulu, but when? Now the online video service will tell you.
By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, November 8, 2009

The online video service Hulu added a long-overdue feature last week: A "coming soon" page designed to give the site's millions of users a heads-up about when they'll be able to watch the next new episode of "Fringe" or "Parks and Recreation" in their Web browsers.

Ever since it launched in 2007, as a joint offering by News Corp. and NBC Universal, the site has been remarkable for its way of enhancing the channel-surfing experience with some of the added frills of Web surfing. Got a favorite show coming up? You can now get Hulu to send you an e-mail reminder.

If online video services and traditional television programming are growing more similar than ever, so, too, are the viewing habits of the people who use them.

In other words, the fall TV season is also prime time for online video. More than 168 million Web users in the United States watched video over the Internet in September, via services such as YouTube and Hulu. That's a new record, according to ComScore, up by more than 7 million from the preceding month and up from a total of 146 million for the same month last year.

With such numbers, it's become popular for pundits to speculate that folks are moving from cable subscriptions over to free online services. Last year, I personally knew of one person who used online video and other services rather than pay for a cable subscription; this year it's up to four.

But evidently, that switch isn't a trend just yet outside my circle. Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, said in a recent quarterly financial filing that it has 46.8 million subscribers, an increase of more than 3 percent over last year.

So much for anecdotal evidence.

"You always read articles about people giving up cable for Hulu," said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at the market research firm Interpret, "but that's not mainstream behavior."

Competition for the couch-potato dollar is about to get thicker.

Best Buy announced last week that it is gearing up to launch its own video-on-demand service, through devices such as Web-connected TVs and Blu-ray players.

Sony, what's more, has inked a deal with Netflix so that PlayStation 3 owners can stream some of the movie-rental company's video content directly to their game consoles. To perform this trick, which the Xbox 360 has been able to do since last year, PS3-owning subscribers need to log on to Netflix and sign up to get a disc.

The latest Apple rumor, making the rounds last week, has it that the iPod maker has been quietly going to television networks with a proposed iTunes service in which subscribers would pay for a type of subscription for access to the store's offerings.

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