In the cutthroat world of cord-cutting, the best options don’t always get the most customers.
Case in point: Hulu + Live TV, whose 3.7 million subscribers make it the most popular cable bundle replacement today. That’s despite a DVR service that’s objectively worse than nearly all its competitors. Unlike rivals such as YouTube TV and Sling TV, Hulu won’t let you skip ads in recordings without paying extra for the privilege, and it doesn’t support watching recordings while they’re still in progress.
I feel compelled to bring this up after last week’s column, in which I cheerily proclaimed that live TV streaming services had shed the bizarre DVR restrictions that once made them feel like second-rate cable alternatives. In hindsight, I should have made a bigger deal of how Hulu is the sad exception to the rule.
The ad-skipping upcharge
At its base price of $65 per month, Hulu + Live TV lets you record up to 50 hours of live TV, with no time limit on how long those recordings are available. But to skip through commercial breaks, you must pay an extra $10 per month for Hulu’s “Enhanced Cloud DVR” add-on, which also gives you 200 total hours of recording time.
Hulu’s DVR upcharge seemed reasonable when its prices were lower—the live TV service originally cost $40 per month when it arrived in 2017—and when other services had their own recording limitations. But as those services’ DVRs have matured, Hulu hasn’t kept up.
YouTube TV, for instance, used to prevent ad skipping on any show that had an on-demand version available. It ended that practice for most channels in 2018, and for all channels in 2019. Sling TV used to charge $5 per month extra for DVR service that couldn’t record certain channels, but later added a free DVR tier and lifted those restrictions. DirecTV Stream (formerly DirecTV Now, then AT&T TV Now, then AT&T TV) launched without DVR service, but added one after two years.
By contrast, Hulu’s ad-skipping add-on effectively creates a hidden $10 fee for anyone who expects a typical DVR experience. Cord-cutters shouldn’t stand for it, not when YouTube TV and FuboTV are both charging the same $65 per month for unrestricted DVR service.
In-progress recording restrictions
If the ad-skipping restrictions weren’t bad enough, Hulu is also the only live TV streaming service that doesn’t let you watch recordings while they’re still in progress. Recorded programs don’t appear in your DVR list until after they’re over, and if you load the program from Hulu’s channel guide, you can only jump straight to the live feed.
This limitation applies regardless of whether you have Hulu’s Enhanced Cloud DVR add-on. So, even if you’re paying extra for ad skipping, you can’t use the DVR to watch a live show on tape-delay, and then cut through the commercials.
Again, no other live TV streaming service has this problem. YouTube TV, Sling TV, FuboTV, Philo, and DirecTV Stream allow allow you to immediately watch recordings in progress and skip through commercial breaks. FuboTV and Philo even have a neat feature where if you start recording from the middle of a show, you can immediately watch it from the beginning, complete with ad-skipping privileges.
”Start Over” annoyances
As a minor consolation, Hulu does let you rewind, fast forward, and jump to the beginning of some live programs without having to record them at all.
But this “Start Over” feature lacks the ad-skipping capabilities of an actual DVR. Whenever you try to skip past a commercial break—or if you just land on a commercial break while rewinding—you’ll have to stop and watch the ads, even if you’re paying extra for ad skipping with Hulu’s Enhanced Cloud DVR.
Even worse, the availability of this “Start Over” feature is completely unpredictable. ESPNU, for instance, lets you watch live shows from the beginning, but other ESPN channels don’t. As I write this, I can rewind the current program on FS1, but not on FS2. The Discovery Channel doesn’t support live rewinding, but Food Network does, even though the same TV network runs both channels.
Hulu declined to provide any rhyme or reason for what makes “Start Over” available on a given program. A spokesperson merely said that the TV networks decide which shows should support this feature, and that it can vary by program. In other words, you can’t rely on it.
All of this is a shame because Hulu otherwise has a lot going for it. The $65 per month live TV service has a broad live channel selection, plus it includes access to Hulu’s extensive on-demand catalog at no extra charge. Hulu’s interface has also improved significantly over the years, and its 50-hour DVR is easier for cable converts to understand than YouTube TV’s unlimited recording system. As a drop-in replacement for cable, it should be an easy recommendation.
Instead, the DVR makes Hulu + Live TV feel like a relic from cord-cutting’s cruder days.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.