Hulu is already very good, so why isn't it awesome?

As more of us discover online video, frustrations abound.

Published August 19, 2008 10:14AM (EDT)

This morning, I read that analog TV's shutting down will kill free mobile phone-based TV. While I love the idea of watching TV on a phone, it's not something that I would actually do. Last year, on my first trip to South Korea, I was blown away that a man was watching a live baseball game on TV, on his phone, while standing on a fast-moving, underground subway. How come I can't even send a text message from the Transbay Tube while riding BART?

But whatever. I don't know anyone in this country who pays to be able to watch TV on their phone -- and a lot of my friends are gadget-heads. What I do want, though, is better TV online. But like Denise pointed out a couple weeks ago, there are those of us -- my fiancée and myself included -- who don't own a television. We do watch a small amount of TV on a regular basis, though. We're avid fans of "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," and when they're in season, we watch "The Office" and "Lost." (OK, and I'm a sucker for "Battlestar Galactica," too.)

For years, we've pirated our shows via BitTorrent, and for a while I had hard drives full of a year's worth of "The Daily Show" stored away -- then she convinced me that I really didn't need to keep them. But lately, we've been getting our nightly dose (albeit a day behind) of Stewart and Colbert, legally, for free, and (although Comedy Central doesn't know it) without ads.

In recent months, Viacom has put "The Daily Show" and "Colbert" full-length episodes -- forget that short clip nonsense -- on big media video sites like Hulu and Fancast. Normally, there are three 30-second ads before the episode starts, and then at the normal ad breaks, one-third and two-thirds of the way through. However, we watch the episodes ad-free using a simple Firefox extension, Adblock Plus, which strips them out (and blocks a whole host of other online ads for me, too).

So why did we switch from being pirates (yarr!) to watching on the straight and narrow? Convenience.

It's much easier to simply go to or Hulu and click play than to deal with BitTorrent trackers and wait 30 minutes for a download on my home DSL connection. The quality is comparable, and given that we're watching it on a laptop screen, I don't care whether Jon Stewart is in surround sound or HD. It's a nightly 22-minute splash of humor that we watch before bed, not an hours-long epic that requires seven channels of audio.

Sure, we could go the iTunes route, but at $2 an episode (or $10 for a monthly pass), plus the same for "Colbert" (each produces 160 episodes per year), we'd be looking at $200 a year just for those shows. Our Netflix subscription costs about the same, and we have access to way more stuff.

What, you didn't think that we'd become the hard-nosed, copyright-hating, fight-the-man, steal-everything-online punk kids because we got our higher education at the high-bandwidth-go-go-Napster universities of the early 21st century, did you? Nah, we just got smarter about it. First, you can't get "The Daily Show" on Netflix, and second, it's, erm, daily. (More or less.) Longer stuff is for Netflix (or bingeing on TV series), and shorter stuff that comes on more often is for the Internet. (Downloading movies or TV seasons takes way too long via BitTorrent.) But if I can get my favorite shows and a back catalog of movies in an environment like Hulu, maybe we can ditch our Netflix subscription.

Anyway, I and most of my 20-something friends who don't have cable (or in more extreme cases like our own, a TV) tend to watch our favorite shows via a combination of passing around pirated downloads, legal online freebies and Netflix. When one gets easier and more convenient -- like Hulu, for instance -- we tend to migrate to where the low-hanging videos are.

But we're not the only ones. Stodgy old media like the Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor are digging Hulu, too.

But even that can be frustrating. A friend of mine and his wife recently started watching "The Riches" on Hulu and didn't mind the ads. But once they finished the first season, the second season was nowhere to be found on Hulu. (It is, however, available on iTunes.) A quick search on Hulu reveals that some shows ("The Office") only have random entire episodes available (Season 4, Episodes 3 through 6), while others only have preview clips ("The Shield") and no entire episodes. As he put it: "I'm stoked for it to become actually awesome rather than just potentially." (I've got an e-mail into Hulu to find out when that might happen.)

Until Hulu gets its act together, my guess is that he'll be back on BitTorrent in no time.

By Cyrus Farivar

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