In Depth

Hulu Is Crack, iTunes Is Marijuana

One of the great things about being a reporter is you don’t have to make stuff up. You just report the stuff other people make up. Like what John Flowers, the San Francisco-based independent filmmaker, said during our recent recording of the weekly audio podcast “This Week in Media.”
“Hulu is like crack and iTunes is marijuana,” he said.

Hulu is crack because it temporarily satisfies your intense, immediate, gotta-have-it-now craving for a TV show. When we use Hulu, we’ll take anything, even the measly four episodes of a TV show that Hulu deigns to roll out at its whim.

We don’t know which episodes of our favorite shows will be on, nor when. But we don’t care. Nor does it matter if the stream buffers or sputters during the 22-minute viewing of a random episode of “The Office.” We’ll suffer through 30-second commercials too, before, during and after our show. We just have to have our fix.

But iTunes. Hey, man, iTunes is cool. You can just release the next season of “Californication” whenever you want. Nine months from now? No biggie. We’ll just sit back and chill on the couch.

Of course, the reality is both drugs are imperfect solutions to the problem. On the one hand, iTunes boasts a superior user interface and you can take your shows with you. You don’t have to be connected to the Internet. In fact, when you’re not online is often when you most want to watch a TV show. But iTunes doesn’t offer everything, since you can’t get NBC shows, for instance, or shows from the NBC Universal cable networks. (Sorry “Battlestar Galactica” fans.)

So here’s the perfect drug.

Streaming services like Hulu need to merge, functionally, with download services like iTunes. NBC already offers NBC Direct, which lets you download its shows for free for seven days and watch them on your computer, even when you’re not connected. That’s a step in the right direction since it frees us from broadband dependency.

My bet is that Hulu will evolve in the next year to offer similar functionality, but with more features. You’ll be able to either watch online or download shows from Hulu for free for a limited period of time and take them with you on a portable device. You won’t have to pay $1.99 an episode like you do on iTunes, but you won’t get to own the shows forever either.

Because this revolution is all about freeing content, both from its television set chains, and now from the chains of the Internet connection.

I don’t advocate crack or marijuana. But I think Hulu on iTunes sounds like a natural high.