If you haven’t been paying attention to Hulu lately, the streaming-video service would like you to take a second look.
Over the last few months, Hulu seems to have rejuvenated itself. It cut a $160 million deal to stream every episode of Seinfeld, and it landed exclusive arrangements with FX (Sons of Anarchy) and AMC (Mad Men) to stream their newest shows. Hulu has also partnered with Showtime to offer its full catalog and live programming feed for $9 per month—that’s $2 less than what you’d pay for Showtime’s upcoming stand-alone service on an Apple TV, Roku, or PlayStation.
Hulu is also focusing squarely on its $8-per-month subscription service, dropping the “Plus” from its name and promising fewer commercials. And over the weekend, Hulu made a big appeal to Roku users, offering two months of its subscription service for free.
After years of lethargy, it seems like Hulu finally wants to be a real competitor to Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video. But as compelling as Hulu suddenly seems, I struggle as a cord cutter not to be wary of the service and what it might be trying to accomplish.
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It’s impossible to compare Hulu with other services without bringing up advertisements. While Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and the new HBO Now are ad-free, most Hulu programming comes with commercial breaks. As Hulu tells it, this is the trade-off users must make if they want new shows the day after they air on cable—a major differentiator between itself and rival services.
In fairness, the ads aren’t egregious. Each break tends to have just one or two commercials, and you’ll get about four commercial breaks over the course of a 30-minute TV show. Hulu still hasn’t solved the repetition problem—a day into my Roku trial, I’m already sick of the Trivago guy—but Hulu is at least sincere about reducing the ad load.
The problem is that advertising has become somewhat of a relic in today’s TV environment, both for cable subscribers and cord cutters. A recent survey by Leichtman Research Group found that 62 percent of pay-TV subscribers have DVR service, which means most cable customers are free to skip commercials for anything that isn’t live. And with Netflix being the dominant online video service in the United States, a lot of viewers are getting used to ad-free TV on the streaming side as well.
For that reason, Hulu’s newfound push for exclusive shows feels like an attempt to force advertisements back into the equation. If Hulu can establish itself as the go-to source for hit shows on demand, it can make certain that you’re seeing ads even when you’re not watching in real-time.
One more ad—for cable
In terms of the actual content, Hulu has come a long way since its early days of mainly serving up shows from the big broadcast networks. Scroll through the list of networks, and you’ll see a long list of cable-TV channels including FX, Comedy Central, Cartoon Network, and National Geographic. It’s a powerful feeling to choose a channel you like, pick a show, and see the entire back catalog all the way up to the latest episode. You might even wonder why the big cable networks are cool with this.
You need only dig deeper into the catalog for clues. Some channels, such as the Food Network, make just a sliver of their series available on Hulu, while others, such as IFC, only offer short clips instead of full episodes. The impression this gives is that Hulu is functioning in part as a lure for cable TV. Sure, Hulu seems to say, we’ve got lots of great content. But look how much more content you could get with a big old channel bundle.
This is no surprise given that Hulu is jointly owned by Comcast (through NBCUniversal), Fox, and Disney. As the Wall Street Journal tells it, Comcast has tried to pitch the service as “the nationwide streaming video platform for the cable TV industry,” suggesting that it doesn’t really want to be a disruptive force. It’s aiming to compete with other streaming services, while at the same time trying to preserve the status quo.
You can also see this notion playing out in Hulu’s half-hearted attempts at original programming. The company claims that it’s looking for an original that will define the Hulu brand, but according to Bloomberg, it isn’t spending as much as Netflix, which has already built up a sizable stable of well-liked originals. While Hulu maintains that it has support and relative autonomy from its industry backers, it’s hard to believe they’d let Hulu do too much to shake things up.
None of which is to say you shouldn’t give Hulu a shot, assuming you’re not a staunch opponent of ads in your video streams. The next-day programming is a huge lure, as it gives Hulu a fresher vibe than rival services, and it has a growing number of TV shows that you can’t get anywhere else.
But if you’ve cut the pay-TV cord, and have no interest in going back, don’t assume that Hulu has your best interests at heart.
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.