Happy birthday, Hulu

Hulu, the joint video venture between NBC and Fox, turned one year old yesterday. And what a precocious rugrat it's become.

To celebrate, Hulu announced it's becoming more social, adding a feature called, appropriately enough, "Friends." (No word whether Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Ross, et al will be making guest appearances, but don't hold your breath.) This allows you to build your own little Hulu social network by importing contacts from Facebook, MySpace, Gmail, MSN Hotmail, and Yahoo Mail (though the MySpace and Yahoo imports weren't working when I tried them this morning). You can recommend shows to your pals, see what they've been watching when they really should have been working, and vice versa.

Hulu is hardly the first to try something like this - online services like Joost and Veoh added social elements to their video fare years ago - but it's the first from somebody with stuff you might actually want to watch. And I think it's what Internet TV will be like from here on out.

I have to admit I was deeply cynical of Hulu when it was first announced (and deeply amused at the silly name). I thought any venture between two TV networks was doomed to fail for the same reasons other online ventures from big clumsy Hollywood mega-corporations have failed - obsessive control over a limited amount of content, heavy commercialization, and yet another kludgey video player to add to my growing collection. I was wrong on all counts. (Though I still think the name is silly.)

Hulu's range of content is impressive. I thought it would be nothing but clips and promos for shows on NBC and Fox, but instead it features hundreds of full-length movies, plus TV episodes from "30 Rock" to "The Rockford Files." (It's still well short of what I want, which is of course everything ever recorded on video, but it's a start.) The Hulu video player works flawlessly, and its interface is the best I've seen on any embedded player. And unlike Netflix Watch Instantly, I am not forced to use Internet Explorer to watch videos. (I only use IE under extreme duress.)

Hulu does have commercials, though the breaks are much shorter. I love the countdown in the upper left corner that tells me how long until my show starts again. But shows are often sponsored by a single vendor, and that can be really irritating. For example: Last month I watched a week's worth of The Daily Show in one sitting and had to sit through the same friggin' Pink Panther 2 commercial oh, about 987 times. By the end of it I was ready to go postal. (With some shows you can also choose to watch a longer commercial at the beginning and then go ad-free - which is definitely the way to go.)

Will I use Hulu's new social features? I might. Adding yet another site to my stuffed-to-bursting portfolio of social media accounts sounds like a recipe for disaster. But I watched the Obama inauguration via CNN on Facebook and tweeted my fingers off during the political debates. It added something to both experiences (thought it also made it a little harder to pay attention). I'll take social interaction over passive absorption any day. If it doesn't happen at Hulu, it will happen somewhere.

Dan Tynan does occasionally get off the couch, but only to tend his blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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