The Web service aims to do for your favorite TV shows and movies what YouTube did for viral videos -- offer a gazillion hours of content at no cost to you. Is it too good to be true? Here's what you need to know
David Boreanaz, Nicholas Brendon, ...

Reunions can be awkward. As you scan through the crowd of hundreds, finally some familiar faces pop up. It’s been years but, damn, they’re looking good. Leroy can still do a high kick like nobody’s business. Jimmy and Jill Brock are passionately debating in the corner. Nearby, Buffy Summers broods with Angel. Is this some kind of TV addict’s fever dream starring the casts of Fame, Picket Fences, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Nope. This is Hulu.

While its name might sound like a strain the Centers for Disease Control should be investigating, Hulu is actually the most promising new way for consumers to view TV shows and movies online since the almighty iTunes. (The name actually is rooted in a Mandarin proverb that refers to the ”hulu” as the ”holder of precious things.”) Originally conceived as a joint venture between NBC Universal and News Corp., the streaming-video site went live on March 12. Fans can watch not only full-length episodes of current shows like Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and 30 Rock but also old TV favorites (cue Buffy and Leroy!) as well as feature-length films like The Usual Suspects. So what does this all mean for us TV and movie obsessives? Excellent question, which we will follow up with a few more of our own…

Wait, how does this differ from YouTube?
For starters, don’t look for ”Chocolate Rain” on this site. Hulu distinguishes itself through only allowing ”top-shelf” content. Also, the viewer is incredibly crisp and clear compared with what YouTube and even most network sites use. ”Our focus is on premium,” says Hulu’s CEO, Jason Kilar, meaning that, unlike YouTube, it’s stocked with studio-quality content provided by studios, not user-quality content — like that amusing Sherri Shepherd anecdote your cousin uploaded — provided by users. ”The resolution and size of the video are things that put Hulu in a very different class of service than YouTube.”

Currently, Hulu has episodes of about 250 shows and 100 movies, the bulk of which come from NBC Universal and Fox, which each own 45 percent of the endeavor (private-equity firm Providence is the third primary partner, investing $100 million). NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker and Fox COO and president Peter Chernin sit on Hulu’s board, but all parties insist Hulu is still run as an independent company. NBC and Fox series won’t necessarily receive more prominent placement on the site — though they currently do. Says Zucker, ”It’s an independent company, and frankly there are times when Jason wants to do things that NBC Universal might not think is in the self-interest of each of those individual companies. We want this joint venture to succeed, and we’ve made all of our decisions in the interest of that.”

So is this another way to kill time at work, or am I expected to Hulu in my living room?
Hulu is definitely an alternative to those ongoing Scrabulous games, but it probably won’t become the main way you watch television anytime soon. More likely is that it will become yet another way, like your iPod at the gym. Watching television on a computer simply doesn’t compare to a glorious, high-def flat screen (plus you can’t indulge in your ADD-like need to repeatedly change channels). And while the site does allow access to feature films, even Kilar doesn’t see Hulu as something that will eliminate Friday night at the multiplex. ”Movie theaters will never go away,” he says. ”But up until Hulu nobody has ever gathered the content lineup we’ve been able to gather and made it available on users’ terms. You can watch it when you want it, where you want it, and how you want it. You can clip it. You can share it. You can embed it in your blog. You can embed it in your social-networking page on Facebook or MySpace. These are things that haven’t been done before.”

NEXT PAGE: What does Hulu mean for DVDs? AppleTV and iTunes? And when will I be able to find Lost on there?