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July 24, 2013 at 6:10 PM

Seattle library offering Netflix-like streaming video service

A free, Netflix-like streaming media service is launching this week at the Seattle Public Library after months of testing.

Called Hoopla, it’s a boon for cheapskate media lovers who aren’t too choosy about their video choices.

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The service provides free, online access to a catalog of about 10,000 videos and more than 250,000 music albums. They’re accessible through a browser or an app for smartphones and tablets. After signing up for a Hoopla account — via Hoopladigital.com — users enter their library account information and then browse and checkout material directly from Hoopla.

Borrowed movies and TV shows are available for three days and music is available for seven days. There’s an unlimited number of copies, so patrons won’t have to wait for a particular title.

Hoopla streams content instantly. But unlike Netflix and Hulu, it can also download movies and music to phones and tablets, so they can be consumed offline. Families heading out on a road trip can download videos to a tablet so the kids can watch them in a car or on an airplane.

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Streaming works on a PC or other devices with a browser or through the Hoopla app. But the downloading feature  works only with Apple and Android devices, specifically devices with Apple’s iOS 6 and Android 4.0.

Hoopla’s next priority is getting its app to run on connected TVs. It’s now testing a version for Apple TV that should be ready in a few months, according to Jeff Jankowski, founder of the Holland, Ohio-based company.

Hoopla is part of Midwest Tape, a distribution company that provides DVDs, CDs and other physical media to libraries.

The Seattle library has been talking to Midwest for several years about options for digital distribution and it began testing Hoopla in February, according to Kirk Blankenship, electronic resources librarian.

“It’s been a successful experience for us; we haven’t had anything that quite works on this level,” he said.

“Most of our users have experience with commercial services and have a certain standard they expect to see and I think Hoopla does that in a library setting.”

I found Hoopla simple to set up and use on an iPad, where I borrowed a few videos and an album. On a fast wireless connection the streaming video quality was reasonably high-definition. Downloading was slow, though; it took about 15 minutes to download an hour-long TV show.

Parents should also beware that many of the popular titles appearing at the top of Hoopla’s catalog are not family friendly. Jankowski said the company is working on a filtering system tied to movie ratings, so juvenile library users won’t see material for older audiences.

The music catalog includes lots of newer releases. Movies and TV shows are a different story.

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If you have rooted around the third-tier offerings on Netflix looking for something, anything, decent to watch, the Hoopla catalog will seem familiar. Newer titles in particular overlap with Netflix.

Jankowski said about 80 percent of Hoopla’s catalog is not available on Netflix, and includes niches such as educational videos on SAT preparation and preschool math and grammar videos. He said the video library is about to increase by 50 percent, with 5,000 more titles that are coming soon.

Hoopla is also cheaper than paying $8 per month for Netflix. But library patrons will pay indirectly, through costs incurred by the libraries. Rentals made with Hoopla cost libraries an average of $1.70 apiece. Users are limited to 20 rentals per month, but that could still end up costing the library more than providing them with a Netflix subscription.

Seattle has budgeted about $1,000 per month for Hoopla services. If usage surges, the library may take steps to limit usage, Blankenship said.

He said demand may be kept in check by the material available on Hoopla. Because it’s a limited selection and doesn’t include new releases, it’s unlikely to see the same demand as DVDs, which at some branches account for up to 50 percent of the circulation, he said.

Hoopla is starting with about 10 library systems nationally but expects to reach 100 by the end of the year. In addition to Seattle, the initial batch includes libraries in Los Angeles, Orange County and Salt Lake County.

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