“AS GOD IS MY WITNESS!” Hulu’s biggest reward, so far, is the shows it allows you to discover — or rediscover, like WKRP in Cincinnati.
This past February, Tina Fey returned to host Saturday Night Live and announced, in mock triumph, that the Writers Guild of America had struck a deal with the studios that would pay them for on-line content — one that promised to “raise the rate of writer compensation for ad-supported electronic sell-through downloads, from a flat rate of $600 for 26 weeks per 100,000 downloads to a percentage of .036 percent of the distributor’s gross of any ad revenue generated by said streaming, after an initial window of 17 days. Starting in three years.”
You can’t find that clip on YouTube. But you can find it — as well as almost every other SNL moment, from the first date of Lisa Loopner and Todd DiLaMuca to Samberg and Timberlake doing “Dick in a Box” — on Hulu.com.
It’s still too soon to know whether Hulu — a free, on-demand, ad-supported, streaming-video portal stocked with hi-res TV shows and movies from NBC, Fox, Warner Bros., and more — will end up as a cash cow for the studios or a source of schadenfreude for the writers. Eventually, NBC hopes to sell ad time there in similar proportion to the way it’s done on-air. But some observers scoffed when one venture-capital firm sank $100 million into the site, which many suspect has shaky economics.
Whether Hulu represents a true “revolution” (Atlantic Monthly) or just one more step toward the inevitable convergence of Internet and TV is unclear. But in the meantime, it’s a pretty fun way to kill a couple of hours. The Simpsons are there, as is that show’s dim imitator, Family Guy. The late, lamented Arrested Development is represented in its entirety, as are about 10 episodes each of The Office and 30 Rock. There are episodes of Late Night with Conan O’Brien as well, supplemented, in a nice surprise, by every Pale Force short, in which Conan and Jim Gaffigan fight evildoers with the power of their pallid skin.
But Hulu’s biggest reward, so far, is the shows it allows you to discover — or rediscover. I’d forgotten just how funny the infamous Thanksgiving 1978 episode of WKRP in Cincinnati was. That’s the one where, in an ill-considered stunt, station manager Arthur Carlson releases dozens of live turkeys from a helicopter above a shopping mall. It does not end well: “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.” (Not for nothing, I’d also forgotten the massive crush my childhood self had on Bailey Quarters and her huge glasses.)
Other sit-com chestnuts are there for the mouse clicking. I Spy gives us cool Bill Cosby (pre–Junkyard Gang, pre–Huxtable sweater, pre–moral scold). For fans of the œuvre of mid-period Abe Vigoda, there’s the inimitable Barney Miller. Who’s the Boss? and Doogie Howser are nice sops to the nostalgironic (ironostalgic?) early-30s demo. And if it’s worth remembering just how funny In Living Color could be, it’s also notable that so was — with help from the younger iterations of Steve Carrell and Stephen Colbert — the criminally unwatched Dana Carvey Show.
Hulu also serves as a platform for independently produced programming that you can’t find on TV — some of which is really quite good. Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show is a surreal and slapstick Japanesey talk show. Beer Nutz follows two hopheads on informative tours of brewing hot spots across the country. And, much like 30 Rock, the funny, deadpan indie sit-com The Writer’s Room deals with the craft of concocting a television show. Hey, if this Hulu thing takes off, writers like those could notice a bump in their paychecks.