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Originally published November 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 5, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Brier Dudley

Hulu will be a hit outside techville

It took awhile, but I'm starting to get Hulu, a new online video business started by NBC and News Corp. and run by former Amazon.com and Microsoft people. At...

Seattle Times staff columnist

It took awhile, but I'm starting to get Hulu, a new online video business started by NBC and News Corp. and run by former Amazon.com and Microsoft people.

At first I thought Hulu was going after YouTube and maybe iTunes. But after trying it out and talking to Jason Kilar, the former Amazon.com exec hired in June to run the company, I realized the need to step back and think differently.

Now I think Hulu's going to be a big hit, especially for that huge part of the world that lives outside techville, the strange place where everything revolves around the latest from Google, Apple and Microsoft.

Hulu won't topple those companies, but when it opens up to the public in a few months, it's going to raise expectations for online video, giving a taste of what TV could be like in five years.

The site offers a library of new and old TV shows and some movies, all free via the Web. If you missed last night's episode of "The Simpsons," you can get it the next day at Hulu. It's all there, including the ads. You don't have to download anything, schedule recordings or save to a hard drive.

Hulu uses Adobe's Flash software, like YouTube, but its built-in player does more tricks and provides higher-quality, full-screen playback. You can e-mail shows or clips and post them on blogs and Web pages.

Early adopters may shrug, because they're already pulling shows off the Web or recording broadcasts on TiVo or Windows Media Center. Lots of people also get "on-demand" libraries from their cable companies.

But most people aren't doing this sort of thing. Only one in five U.S. homes, for instance, has a digital video recorder, according to Leichtman Research Group.

People may be watching more online video. But Leichtman, drawing on comScore data, notes that those with Internet access are watching just 4.5 minutes of online video on average vs. the 3.5 hours a day spent watching TV.

Imagine how the numbers will change after networks make TV content available online, free.

That's just the start. There's a wave of gadgets, including game consoles, that connect TVs to the Web.

Not only does Hulu give its networks a new way to broadcast, it helps them make money off old content.

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No wonder it hired Kilar, a 36-year-old Pittsburgh native with a Harvard MBA, who developed Amazon's plan for selling videos. After launching in 1998, it grew into one of the world's biggest video and DVD stores. A key was giving content owners unlimited shelf space to display new and old material.

Similarly, Hulu "presents an opportunity for content owners to make a return not just on their hits but their classics," he said.

Kilar drew on his Seattle network to build the Hulu team in Los Angeles, including Chief Technical Officer Eric Feng, a former Microsoft researcher.

Kilar emphasizes Hulu's TiVo-esque capabilities. "In today's world, consumers should be able to get access to great content when, where and how they want," he said.

For many who are just turning toward online video, today's options are expensive, complicated, maybe illegal or low-quality.

Networks, like the music industry, may respond to online challenges with more lawsuits. But with Hulu, at least, they apparently decided the best defense is a good offense.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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