(Don't adjust your browser; these videos are supposed to extend into the right column, for reasons that will be explained below.)
Hulu, the video-streaming site that NBC and News Corp. long ago said they would build as a rival to YouTube, has always been a joke. People -- even me -- make fun of its name, they make fun of its goal (Old media firms are going to take on Google? Sure they are), they make fun of its ambitions (They plan to release a YouTube-killer by the end of October? What are they smoking?!).
But look, Hulu is here, on time! And it's excellent. Jason Kilar, the company's CEO, demonstrated the service to a select group of reporters last week -- not including me -- and this morning Hulu sent out e-mails inviting people to a "private beta" of the site. I got one of these e-mails, and I've been trying out the service ever since.
If you like TV, I recommend you go to Hulu.com and put your name on the waiting list for an invitation. Hulu will go public in a few months' time, but the sooner you can get in, the better. This site is very impressive.
With Hulu, finally, a great many TV shows -- from several networks, and from several TV epochs, the distant past (the 1980s) to the present -- are available on a single site, viewable in a hassle-free browser-based player, with great video quality and very minimal commercial interruptions.
It's like YouTube before the copyright cops cracked down -- actually, nevermind, scratch that comparison, because in many ways Hulu is completely different from and better than YouTube ever was. First, Hulu is for studio-produced video only -- you won't find user-submitted content here . And second, this is not a clip site -- Hulu, beating YouTube in its heyday, features entire episodes of TV shows you love.
Other great features: Every show is embeddable on sites beyond Hulu. See the clip of "The A Team" above? That's an entire episode -- Season 1, Episode 13, first aired May 3, 1983 -- playing from Hulu's server. (But you've already spotted one problem with this setup: Hulu's videos are widescreen, and they can't easily be resized to fit a small blog space like Machinist's. I tried fixing the embed parameters, but the videos came out looking funky. This no doubt will be fixed in the future.)
In a nifty feature, Hulu also lets you embed any specific portion of a show. For example, here is the wonderful opening theme of "Hill Street Blues" -- I cut it out from the second episode of the series.
Whoa, "The A Team," "Hill Street Blues" -- aren't there any newer shows on Hulu? Why yes, there are. A lot.
The big shows from Fox and NBC are there: "Bones," "Cops," "Family Guy," "House," "The Simpsons," "30 Rock," "Chuck," "Friday Night Lights," "My Name Is Earl," "The Office," among others. There are also shows from cable nets, including Bravo, FX ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia"), Sci-Fi ("Battlestar Galactica"), and USA ("Monk"). And there are some entire movies from studios affiliated with NBC and Fox -- "Breaking Away," "Bulworth," "Sideways," "Conan the Barbarian," "The Jerk" and others.
All these programs are presented with commercial interruptions, though the ads are shorter than what you find on television (but they're unavoidable -- Hulu's player pauses the ads when you click to another window, so you can't do e-mail or browse the Web while the ad is playing).
Hulu's player is slick and intuitive, and the videos stream very fast, just like YouTube. Also, you can click to any point in a video and begin playing there -- there are handy markers to indicate where the commercial breaks occur.
Some important caveats: Reports suggest that the site doesn't work for viewers outside the U.S. (If you're not here, you won't be able to play any of the videos I've embedded.)
Also, Hulu doesn't include all of the episodes of any of these shows. For some old shows, you can see an entire season's episodes. For new shows, Hulu seems to feature only five episodes per season -- the five latest episodes in the current season.
Presumably this restriction is meant to combat Hulu's "cannibalization" of the studios' DVD sales. It's not a wise move, I say. DVDs, for their quality and portability, offer a better experience than Web streaming, and I find it hard to believe that many people will choose to watch TV shows on Hulu as an alternative to getting a disc.
Still, I don't have much heart to complain. For the big media firms, this move is revolutionary. As Kara Swisher notes, "Finally, someone in Hollywood has realized that ubiquitous distribution, which is being driven by consumers' desire to move their media anywhere they want, whenever they want, is the future."
For that realization, we should all shout "Hulu" from the heavens.
Here is a sampling of videos -- full episodes and clips -- available on Hulu. By the way, all of Hulu's clips are available on video sites operated by AOL, Comcast, Microsoft, MySpace and Yahoo. If you don't have a Hulu invite, check out Hulu's content at this AOL link.
"Arrested Development," Season 1, Episode 19, April 4, 2004 -- a short clip featuring the inimitable Michael Cera.
Last Thursday's episode of "The Tonight Show," featuring Barack Obama as a guest. Go to the 10-minute mark to see Jay Leno's "Jaywalking" gag, and the 17-minute mark to watch Obama.
Andy Samberg's "People Getting Punched Right Before Eating," from a few weeks ago on "Saturday Night Live."
A clip from the obscene watermark episode of "The Office." Season 3, Episode 21, aired April 26, 2007.
"The Breakfast Club." Yes, the whole movie (though edited for TV).