Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Hulu: Watch Our Shows on a Big Screen, but not on a TV

Want to watch the season finale of “30 Rock” for free, whenever you want, on a big screen? Go for it, says Hulu–just don’t watch it on a TV.

Confused? Of course. So was I, when I checked out Hulu’s new “Desktop” app, launched today as part of the video service’s new “Labs” collection of experimental offerings.

Basically, it’s downloadable software that makes it easier than ever to watch Hulu’s shows and clips in the same way that you’d watch TV–on your sofa, remote in hand. But Hulu wants to make sure you don’t actually think it replaces TV.

Note how the company describes it: “A lean-back viewing experience for your personal computer” that will work on Macs and PCs with “standard Windows Media Center or Apple remote controls”–but not with Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows Media Center machines or Apple’s (AAPL) AppleTV boxes. And it also isn’t designed to work with any other Web-to-TV software or boxes, like Vudu.

To spell this out: I’m writing this post from the “cave” that the All Things Digital team has set up for the D7 conference, and it’s full of gorgeous 22-inch and 30-inch Mac displays that are much nicer than anything that sits in my cramped Brooklyn apartment. Hulu is saying that they’d be A-OK with me watching Tina Fey and crew, via their service, on those monitors. But they don’t want me trying to get that show on an actual television.

Isn’t a screen a screen? Nope. Not to Hulu’s owners: GE’s (GE) NBC, News Corp.’s (NWS) Fox, and soon, Disney’s ABC (ABC). To them, it’s important to make the distinction between TV programming, which generates significant ad revenue and/or cable subscription fees, and online video, which generates very little at all. That’s why NBC CEO Jeff Zucker reiterated his opposition to Boxee, the software that makes it easy to move Web video like Hulu to TV sets.

Now all he has to do is convince tech-savvy entertainment consumers to play along. Good luck!

UPDATE: Several readers have suggested to me that Hulu and its owners aren’t as dumb as they seem, and that they do indeed intend to use Desktop eventually, as a Boxee-like product of their own–that is, they will use it to let people watch Hulu on TV. If so, that means that Jeff Zucker wasn’t being honest when he declared that “right now we’re committed to Hulu being an online experience, and that’s where our vision is today, and I think that will continue.”

But for what it’s worth, whenever I’ve talked to anyone at ABC, Fox, NBC or Hulu, all of them have been consistently mindful about not trying to disrupt the existing value chain that supports the cable and broadcast TV business–“the ecosystem” is the euphemism they prefer. So I don’t find Zucker’s comments so far-fetched.

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