Hulu Hands-On Review in One Word: Brilliant

This morning, between fielding phone calls, answering emails and writing blog posts, I have been watching TV, a lot of TV…on Hulu, the new online video portal backed by NBC (GE), News Corp. (NWS) and $100 million in funding from Providence Equity Partners.

Before I go any further, a mea culpa: I mocked the service, and its backers, all through the summer. From the moment I learned about the new company, I was skeptical. And now, after spending three hours or so on the service, I am ready to eat crow. And not just any crow, but rotten, six-month-old crow: I have never been more wrong.

Now to my first impressions: This is an awesome service, one that worked flawlessly on my Macbook Pro and ThinkPad T61 without a hitch. The quality of the video shows is good enough to enjoy without straining the eyes, and even in the full-screen mode, the Flash video looks pretty amazing.

As Liz had noted yesterday, the site is clean, sparse and well laid out, taking a cue from the on-the-air (old TV) roots of its parents. And I can use this service to catch up on all the episodes of “Scrubs” I’ve missed.

Hulu doesn’t seem like a YouTube (GOOG) competitor. (This is yet another thing I was wrong about.) What it really is trying to do is time shift — and place shift — television on a massive scale. It’s basically an attempt to counterbalance the tight control that cable and satellite networks have over distribution.

It’s the kind of service that should scare startups trying to develop their own distribution platforms, such as Joost. It is also the kind of service, if it can attract enough viewers, that could succeed in relegating YouTube and others like YouTube to the “user-generated content” world, at least in the U.S. market. The social media features alone, such as sharing, are good enough to get Hulu some traction. I loved the ease with which you can create short, embeddable clips from full-length TV episodes, and the slider-based clip-and-share feature is pretty awesome.

Hulu has a long way to go before it can claim an audience as large as YouTube’s, and no one knows how much pressure it will face from its distribution partners, such as the cable companies. There are already rumblings about the draconian terms of service, and it’s unfortunate that its big media parents are restricting the site to web-based streaming and expiration dates for fresh episodes of new shows. But I think that when the beta becomes publicly available, you are going to be pleasantly surprised. For once, I am happy to be wrong.

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