Maybe more important, it's also shaping up as a key proving ground in the ongoing philosophical debate about what people want from Web-based entertainment.
How do you Hulu? You don't have to pay anything, download a special player or even register your name or e-mail address. The site, which went up in mid-March, is free; in exchange for watching relatively brief ads, you get access to complete high-resolution episodes of top TV series such as "24" and "30 Rock," as well as impressively cataloged clips from "Saturday Night Live" and other shows. (The movie roster is somewhat less formidable, unless you consider "The Payaso Comedy Slam" or "Snake Eater" the apex of cinematic art.)
You could spend hours rolling around in there, as I did over a few days recently, and just scratch the surface.
"We haven't hit our three-month anniversary yet, and we already have about 700 titles," Jason Kilar, Hulu's chief executive, told me last week.
Last week, Hulu began showing complete episodes of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report." The deal is important because of the corporate relationships involved. Hulu joins the forces of NBC Universal and News Corp., parent of Fox Broadcasting and other networks. Comedy Central is owned by Viacom, a rival company that hasn't always been friendly toward outside websites that want to use its content.
THE MESSAGE seems clear: Viewers want online video, and studios have decided they'd better give it to them, traditional corporate strategy be damned.
Bobby Tulsiani, an analyst at Jupiter Research, told me that he thinks Hulu is "a great first start" at developing Internet sites designed for what Web folks call premium content -- that is, full-length, professionally produced TV shows and movies. What's still unknown, he added, is just how big the market is for this stuff.
Hulu delivered 63 million total streams during April, its first full month of operation, making it the No. 10 online video-streaming site, according to Nielsen Online, an audience-research company. (Yes, that's still a long way from No. 1 YouTube, Google's clip-sharing site, which logged a mind-boggling 4 billion streams.)
Yet for people who care about TV programming, Hulu represents more than just another way to catch favorite episodes.
The issue boils down to this: Will low-cost original programming, à la "lonelygirl15" or those grainy, amateur YouTube clips, continue to dominate online video? Or will the little guys get crowded out in a new, heavily commercialized era, led by expensive, slickly produced studio shows that premiered on broadcast or cable?
A lot of money -- and maybe the future of TV programming itself -- is riding on the answer. After all, studios almost certainly face more years of viewer erosion on the traditional networks. Their economics might cease to work at all unless they find other ways to recapture those lost viewers. Given how much time people spend with their computers and wireless devices, the Web is going to be a key battleground.
One of Hulu's chief rivals, Veoh, has hedged its bets, programming-wise. Veoh's service is divided between user-generated content (see surveillance-cam footage of an office worker going berserk in a crowded cubicle!) and professionally produced stuff such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "The Big Bang Theory."
DMITRY SHAPIRO, the founder of Veoh, says the Web has always prized openness. That's partly why YouTube, Facebook and Wikipedia, all of which allow users to post their own content, have done so well. And that's the model Shapiro is determined to follow.
"That's how the Internet was built; everyone participates," Shapiro said in an interview. "That is really the complete opposite of what Hulu is based on," he added, because Hulu doesn't allow users to post their own video. "Closed systems don't work on the Internet." (When I raised the example of Apple's iTunes music and video store as a type of closed system that's done quite well, Shapiro dismissed it as "an anomaly.")
The importance attached to original made-for-the-Web content has been proven, Shapiro argued, by the herd of major Hollywood players who have moved into that arena, including former Walt Disney Co. chief Michael Eisner, ex-Nickelodeon chief Herb Scannell and former WB Network boss Jordan Levin.
Whether Hulu can grow into a major force or not, it's already become a pretty cool place to hang out. Its technology is good enough that Veoh and other popular sites such as Fancast frequently embed Hulu shows on their pages. The contents are helpfully alphabetized on a master list, where you might find more than one hidden treasure (egad, the short-lived '70s western "Alias Smith and Jones"?). You can even search for shows that Hulu doesn't have, and the site will direct you to where you can find them. The sole glitch came when I tried to call up "SNL's" "Annuale" ad parody; a message apologetically informed me that the clip was unavailable, with no further explanation.
Overall, Hulu is a big improvement over rivals such as Joost, which requires you to download a player that plants itself on your desktop and keeps jabbing you in the ribs with annoying pop-ups and invitations to share content with your friends. When I was settling down to watch an episode of the old ABC drama "Twin Peaks" and tried to remove a Joost pop-up for a credit-card company, I instead got kicked immediately into a commercial for the same advertiser. Not fun.
True, most of the content available on sites such as Hulu can already be had elsewhere, such as the networks' websites. But Kilar, the website's chief, sees value in developing a department-store model for shows.
Also, he added, companies will actually pay premium rates to advertise on a service such as Hulu because the shows rely on a single sponsor, which reduces the dreadful ad clutter of network TV. And viewers also can't zap through the commercials, the way they can with TiVo or other DVRs.
Does all this mean that pretty soon we'll be ditching our flat-screens and watching "The Office" only on laptops?
Well, perhaps some of us will. But don't worry about that costly 36-inch electronic rectangle chewing up wall space in your living room. "The television set has a very healthy future," Kilar said. "I absolutely never see that going away."
The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at scott.collins @latimes.com