Hulu: The Next Step in TV on the Web

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  • Read Later streams current episodes of hit shows like The Simpsons the morning after they air on TV

A new website called Hulu could do to television what iTunes did to music. That's because Hulu frees TV shows from their networks and instead lets viewers watch legal versions of programs à la carte, whenever they choose — for free on the Web.

Though TV shows have gradually become available on individual network sites over the past few years, the merit of Hulu is that it lets you go to a single, easy-to-use site to watch any episode you want — without having to sift through all the promotional clutter on official TV sites. In fact, you don't even have to know which network a show airs on. "People don't associate The Biggest Loser with NBC. People identify with shows, not a network," says Hulu's CEO, Jason Kilar, whose Los Angeles–based startup has received $100 million in private equity funding and is partially owned by Fox and NBC.

Launching on Wednesday at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Time, Hulu (the name is derived from the Mandarin word for gourd) streams current episodes of dozens of network TV series, including hits like House, The Simpsons and Late Night With Conan O'Brien. It also has episodes from 250 classic series, such as Miami Vice and The Dick Van Dyke Show, and 100 full-length feature films including The Big Lebowski and Some Like It Hot. (Hulu currently offers shows from NBC and Fox; WB shows will be added in the next few months.) You'll also find thousands of short clips and outtakes from various shows, movies and professional sports games from the NBA, NHL and NCAA. You can watch all video in lush, full-screen mode and send clips to friends or post them online, much as you could a YouTube video. But unlike YouTube videos, you can actually custom-edit existing clips before sending them, in order to home in on your favorite part.

As an added bonus, by skipping network websites or even the original air times on TV, you can watch your show with less than half the number of ads you would normally see. For example, when I went to to watch a recent episode of The Simpsons, I had to suffer through a minute of commercials before I got to see the show. On Hulu, while I had to update my copy of Macromedia Flash, there were less than 20 seconds of ads in the first 8 minutes. And unlike digital video recorders such as TiVo, which cost hundreds of dollars and require time to set up and schedule recordings, Hulu has no setup and no cost.

Two quibbles: Hulu claims that new episodes will be available on its site by 6 a.m. Eastern Time the day after they air on TV. But when I tested the site two days before it came out of beta, the most recent episodes of Family Guy and The Simpsons were more than a week old. Hopefully this is a startup glitch that the site will work out soon. Secondly, Hulu needs to make these videos available in a mobile format, so viewers can download them to iPods and cell phones. But other than that, Hulu is a groundbreaking website that doesn't just offer a bunch of TV shows and movies online — it actually makes you want to watch them there too.