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Imagine a network that lets you watch Michael Bluth torch his family’s banana shack, Malcolm Reynolds outsmart the Alliance, Peter Petrelli and Hiro Nakamura save the cheerleader and the world and Ted Baxter’s bumbling infuriate Mary Richards on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”


Now envision picking and choosing which episode you want of each show and when you want to watch it. Add features such as being able to start and stop, fast-forward and rewind at will. And a network where commercial breaks eat up no more than 30 seconds instead of 5 minutes.


WEB OF ENTERTAINMENT Hulu isn’t the only place on the Web you can get streaming video. Here are some top sites for catching up on your favorite flicks and shows: Veoh.com You don’t have to download any software, but the features aren’t as easy to use as Hulu’s, and it’s missing the fun embed or share feature. It does, however, have all of CBS’ current lineup. Fancast.com This site also partners with Hulu.com and has a wide selection of shows. Unlike Hulu, Fancast will try to learn your preferences and customize recommendations for other programs you might like. Plus, TV shows have their own pages with episode guides. MeeVee.com MeeVee is a hub for shows on ABC, CBS, Fox and the CW. It offers lots of handy guides, like episode synopses and tips on what to watch on any given day. The site is a mix of clips, pulled from YouTube and other Web sites, and links to shows. The clarity of picture is hit or miss, and the links aren’t always great. When we tried to watch “Supernatural,” the link just sent us to the CW’s video page. Joost.com Joost has a ton of shows—everything from music videos to “NCIS” to lots of clips of the wet T-shirt variety—arranged by channel. You can even create your own channel. However, you have to download Joost’s software, and it will run only on Windows XP or Vista. NBC.com, ABC.com, Fox.com, CBS.com All four major networks carry at least some of their shows online. The quality and quantity vary. Trying to find a full episode at Fox.com is a maddening experience, but catching up on “Grey’s Anatomy” is a breeze, thanks to ABC’s crystal-clear video player. MySpace.com/primetime This is another Hulu partner, and it has a combination of television shows, like “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons”; movies, like “The Jerk”; and original Web-only programs. The content that’s powered by Hulu looks great; the stuff that comes from MySpace.com can be fuzzy. Yahoo! TV (tv.yahoo.com) Yahoo! TV is great for watching clips or catching up on TV gossip, but less great for watching full episodes. It has about 40 shows, but the episodes for each show are hit or miss. You might see “Monk” on the show list and get psyched about spending an afternoon with the wacky detective, only to find there are just a handful of episodes. AOL Television (Television.AOL.com) The number of episodes per series can vary, but AOL has an interesting selection of shows that extends beyond the major networks and includes titles like Sci-Fi’s “Eureka.” The video window, though, is small—not quite the size of a cocktail napkin. MSN.com MSN TV has a large selection of shows, but the video player is smaller and less sophisticated.

And best of all, it’s free.


Television doesn’t love us that much yet, but the Internet is getting closer with last month’s official launch of Hulu!.com, a streaming video site that brings legal, studio-quality (read: not YouTube graininess) video to the Web.


How it works:


Start at www.Hulu.com. You won’t have to download any software. You can search for shows or movies directly, just like you would with Google, or browse titles by popularity or alphabetical order.


The window you use to watch the clips, shows or movies comes with a handful of nifty features, like a lower-lights button that darkens the browser.


The site has also made sharing video insanely easy. With a simple click, you can e-mail it to a friend. Or you can clip the video by moving your cursor or even embed it in your social-networking site on MySpace or YouTube. And the picture knocks the socks off most of the video you’ll find on the Web; it’s beautifully clear and doesn’t freeze or drag.


Hulu is a godsend for catching up on old favorites—welcome back, Buffy!—or series you missed the first time around.


For a startup that just launched in March, the number of titles is impressive—more than 250 series, 100 feature-length films, plus clips from 150 more TV shows and 50 movies, such as “Saturday Night Live” and “Napoleon Dynamite,” as of press time—and growing.


What doesn’t work so well:


Critics have pointed out that CBS and ABC aren’t on board with Hulu, so you can’t watch “Lost” or “Jericho.” But you can find them. Go to Hulu.com and search for “Jericho” and you’ll get links to online episodes at CBS.com.


A “Lost” search gets you links to ABC.com.


Sometimes the omissions are just plain heartbreaking. A search for “Freaks and Geeks,” Judd Apatow’s spot-on look at high school in the early `80s, yields no results.


And finding the episode that you want can be frustrating because some series have only a handful of episodes on the site. Want to laugh at Homer Simpson? You can. Want to watch the deliciously titled “The Crepes of Wrath,” where Bart heads off to Paris as an exchange student? You might be out of luck.


Some series have as few as five episodes available for viewing, though the site is adding new videos often.


That’s frustrating if you’re trying to do more than catch up on a week you missed. Hulu says it plans to put up new episodes the day after they air, but that only works if the site has rights to the series.


Plus, some major shows, such as “American Idol,” are missing. (The company did strike a deal with the National Basketball Association for sports content, though.)


Why Hulu matters:


Americans watch lots of video on their computers. More than 12 million people paid for this kind of content last year, according to a study by Parks Associates, a research and analyst firm that studies how people use the Internet.


Broadband users watching full shows online weekly doubled from 8 percent to 16 percent in 2007, according to market-research firm Horowitz Associates.


Greg Mansur, an instructor in the Department of Radio-TV-Film at Texas Christian University, says he expects that number to grow.


“I want content that I can watch when I want to watch it,” he says. “And if it’s free, I’ll put up with a few commercials.”


Even though lots of sites, including the networks’ own, already do that, Hulu is still important because it’s one-stop shopping.


For example, you don’t have to go to a Warner Brothers store to buy “I Am Legend” and then to a Disney store to buy “Enchanted.” You just go to a store like Best Buy.


With Hulu, you don’t have to move from site to site to watch shows from different networks like “Chuck” and “Prison Break.”


While some sites already compile content from various sources, experts say that Hulu offers easier access and better quality.


Plus, Hulu has shows, like “Married With Children” and “Lost in Space,” that you can’t get at network sites.


The result, says Kurt Scherf, a principal analyst with Parks Associates, is that Hulu has the kind of setup that allows users to stumble upon shows that they might not have discovered otherwise.


What this might mean in the future:


Part of the reason TV junkies are so excited about Hulu is that it signals a change in network thinking, says Fred Singer, chief executive of Anystream, a company that readies video content for Web streaming. Instead of holding onto content, networks are now making it available to different sites on the Web.


The idea, Singer says, is that eventually networks like NBC can make enough money from their programming being watched on the Internet that the Nielsen ratings on TV will be less important.


___


HULU: THE HIGHLIGHTS


What does Hulu mean? The name has its roots in a Mandarin proverb that refers to the hulu as the “holder of precious things.”


What is it? An online home for streaming video of TV shows, both current and past, plus a handful of movies and tons of clips. Some series have an entire season’s worth of episodes; others might have only handfuls that, frustratingly, don’t follow chronological order. To watch content rated MA, users have to sign in and register, and Hulu won’t allow access to users who say they’re under 17.


What we like about it: The videos are crystal clear, and the interface is elegant and intuitive. You can search for shows and movies by type, popularity or alphabetical order.


What we don’t like: There’s no “Lost” because most of the site’s content comes from Fox and NBC. Hulu’s spokesperson says the company is always pursuing content from more sources but wouldn’t directly comment on whether CBS and ABC are likely to jump on board anytime soon.


Why you should care: Experts say that Hulu is heralding a future where content—like TV shows and movies—has fewer boundaries. Eventually, visual content could be more like books: You could go to a Web site and find a catalog of titles from different sources.


A neat feature: Another feather in Hulu’s cap is that it has made file sharing easy. And legal. Each video comes with an embed code, and you can change the length by simply using the cursor to clip it.

Tagged as: hulu | online television
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