Jessica Torrez-Riley, a 20-year-old Northeastern University student, never thought of herself as a big television viewer - until she discovered how much TV she could watch without a TV. There were the episodes of "Lost" that she could catch the next day on ABC.com. And the old episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that she watches on Hulu.com, a new streaming-video site, launched by Fox and NBC, that puts at her fingertips a remarkable bounty of programming.
"In high school, I would watch TV at night but I never really was invested in a show because I couldn't be consistent with it," she said. "I never really got invested in TV shows until I got my first laptop."
Now, if she chooses, she can get invested in far more than the current Fox and NBC fare that makes up much of Hulu's online library, which opened to the public this month. There are also Woody Woodpecker cartoons, clips from the 1990s sketch show "In Living Color," and 37 episodes of "Starsky & Hutch." They're all available for free, supported by unskippable ads - as are dozens of movies, from "The Big Lebowski" to "Sideways." And in a nod to the tech-savvy users that make up Hulu's early audience, an entire Hulu show can be embedded in a blog.
"Hulu stands out because it's such an elegantly presented version and it provides so much efficiency," said James McQuivey, who studies TV as a vice president and principal analyst at
While it's now another fledgling site with limited name recognition, Hulu has the potential to be much more: the most addictive time-killer since instant-messaging, the biggest thing to hit TV since the digital video recorder, the next big step toward the day when TV and the Internet are one.
Hyperbole? Maybe a little. But TV-industry watchers say Hulu and other sites that stream shows represent a step toward the inevitable convergence of the Internet and TV. Within a year or so, more TVs will come with jacks for Ethernet cords, McQuivey said, allowing an Internet signal to stream directly into the set. More viewers will realize they can use their TVs as monitors. And more people will begin to plug in the laptops, fire up a site like Hulu, and watch episodes of the early-'90s sitcom "Doogie Howser, M.D." on a 56-inch screen, or watch current network shows whenever they want.
Hulu represents another get-religion step for the networks, which once feared the havoc the Internet would wreak on the long-sacred TV schedule. In 2005, ABC became the first network to make its shows available for purchase on iTunes, and soon afterward started to put some of its current shows online. Other networks developed their own ways to air their shows, embedded with ads.
Advertisers discovered that online video was something to love: Now, their spots could be micro-targeted and rendered impossible to skip. On Hulu, a single advertiser sponsors each individual stream, airing several ads mid-episode or one ad at the end of a short clip. McQuivey said advertisers pay 50 percent more to place ads online than they would on the network airwaves.
And consumers, he said, don't seem to mind sitting through a few commercials. That frenzied talk about the DVR killing the 30-second spot turned out to be premature.
"All the DVR showed was that people want convenience," he said.
The move toward convenience has been building for awhile, but some trends have recently converged. For a long time, DVR use hovered at about 12 percent of the population, McQuivey said; now, about 26 percent of Americans have the device, and the expectation that TV schedules scarcely matter.
Still, so far, viewer behavior is changing slowly, said Albert Cheng, executive vice president for digital media at the
"What's driving people to use it primarily is that they've missed their favorite show," Cheng said. "There's still a preference to sit in front of the television to watch it. And if they can't, then they know that they can at least catch up with it online."
How to best organize online content is still the subject of dispute and experimentation. Current ABC and CBS programs are not part of the Hulu library; but a search for ABC's "Desperate Housewives" or CBS' "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" on Hulu quickly sends viewers to those networks' media players. CBS partnered with Joost.com, another video aggregating site, which has yet to catch fire.
Over the last 18 months, Comcast Interactive Media created its own video player, Fancast.com, released to the public in January. It features network shows and movies, points users toward TV listings, and will soon allow them to program their DVRs directly from the site.
Hulu entered the crowded field relatively recently. It was founded in March 2007 as a joint venture between NBC and Fox - which own major stakes in the site, along with the company's employees and an equity firm that invested $100 million. In July, Hulu hired CEO Jason Kilar, an
For Hulu, that meant ease of navigation. As developers built the site, Lee said, Kilar insisted Hulu had to pass his "Mom Test:" His mother should be able to figure it out on her own in 15 seconds. Before it was ready for test-use, she said, Kilar e-mailed his mother access with no further explanation. Before long, she had called him to say she was enjoying watching "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."
Hulu has expanded its library to include offerings from MGM,
"We want to stand for something and we want to stand for premium content," she said.
McQuivey said YouTube really isn't Hulu's competition. "YouTube really fills that social need we have to have a shared story as a country, and shared jokes and shared inspiration," he said.
Hulu, he said, fills our national need for TV. (He predicts the site will be used much more often for TV than for movies.)
Right now, Hulu isn't giving out numbers, but Lee said its use has exceeded expectations. So has its depth: Each week, Lee said, more than 80 percent of the site's video library is viewed. Which means that right now, somewhere, someone is probably glued to a desktop computer, watching "WKRP in Cincinnati."