Hulu hopes that “something” is its own vast library of on-demand TV shows and movies. Because that’s exactly what it’s packaging, along with more than 50 channels of live TV, in the new Hulu with Live TV plan that launches today.
Give Hulu $40 per month and you’ll get full access to traditional Hulu — which currently costs $8 per month — as well as live TV from local channels ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC in select cities plus a solid slate of cable channels, including ESPN, CNN, TNT, Bravo, HGTV, Cartoon Network, Lifetime, the Disney Channel and more (Disclosure: CBS is the parent company of CNET and Showtime.) You also get 50 hours’ worth of cloud DVR storage and an all-new interface.
Intrigued? Here’s what you need to know.
Hulu’s DVR: Cloudy with a chance of commercials
I’ll get to the other features in a minute, but first you should know about Hulu’s biggest restriction. The cloud DVR included in its base $40 package doesn’t let you fast-forward through commercials. To do that, you’ll need to pay another $15 per month for Hulu’s “Enhanced cloud DVR” add-on.
A typical physical digital video recorder from your cable company or TiVo lets you lets you record shows to watch later, set up season passes to record all upcoming episodes of a show, and fast-forward and rewind on recorded shows. That kind of DVR functionality is also offered, with some restrictions, by the other live TV streaming services (with the exception of DirecTV Now), except your shows are stored remotely, in the cloud.
What restrictions, you ask? PlayStation Vue’s cloud DVR has unlimited storage capacity and commercial skipping on every channel, but shows expire after 28 days. YouTube TV’s cloud DVR has unlimited storage capacity for nine months, but as soon as a show becomes available via video-on-demand it replaces the DVR’s version, typically meaning you can’t skip commercials. Sling TV’s cloud DVR has 50 or 100 hours of storage, shows don’t expire and you can skip commercials, but it’s only available on certain devices, costs $5 extra per month and many channels (namely Disney/ESPN and Fox channels) can’t be recorded at all.
Hulu’s base cloud DVR has 50 hours of storage and shows don’t automatically expire or get replaced by on-demand, but the privilege of fast-forwarding through commercials brings the price up substantially.
Pricing: Which Hulu is for you?
It depends on how much you like watching commercials.
Competitors Sling TV, DirecTV Now and PlayStation Vue offer step-up plans with more channels, but Hulu takes a different approach. The add-ons for its live TV plan mostly offer extra features — up to $73 per month for the full monty with Showtime, unlimited streams and minimal ads.
Here’s how they break down, including the two original plans, which are still available.
The basic $40 plan can be souped up to remove ads from the on-demand shows, which costs the same $4 as standard Hulu. I love this option. I’ve subscribed to commercial-free Hulu ever since it was introduced, and in my book four bucks to drop those on-demand ads is a no-brainer.
The other add-ons are relatively expensive, although they can be combined for a $10 discount. Enhanced DVR adds more storage and the option to fast-forward through ads. Unlimited screens means a family can watch any number of Hulu streams at the same time inside the home, assuming your network can handle it and you have enough devices. The standard plan is limited to two simultaneous streams.
Showtime is currently the only add-on channel, although Hulu says additional premium channels will come out soon.
Nationwide launch, except for local channels
Unlike YouTube TV, which is only available in five cities right now, anyone in the US can subscribe to Hulu with Live TV. The catch? You’ll only get access to all four live local channels — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — if you live in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago or Philadelphia.
In other markets, Hulu has have some of those channels and not others, so you might get you might get two or three broadcasters at launch. Hulu says it’s working to add more local stations soon. DirecTV Now and PlayStation Vue, which also offer local channels, have similar setups.
Every Hulu live TV subscriber gets cable networks including Disney (ESPN, The Disney Channel), Fox (FX, Fox News), Turner (CNN, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network), Scripps (HGTV, Food Network), NBC (Bravo, USA Network, CNBC, MSNBC). Hulu’s sports selection is decent too, with CBS Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports, NBC Sports and select regional sports networks.
Missing networks include AMC (AMC, IFC, BBC America), Viacom (Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, MTV) and Discovery (Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet). Many of those are available on Hulu’s streaming competitors as well as cable.
Overall Hulu has a solid channel lineup that beats YouTube TV and Sling TV, is roughly equal to DirecTV Now (which lacks CBS, but does have AMC and Viacom) and falls a bit short of PlayStation Vue.
Device support: Relatively weak at launch
To use Hulu with Live TV you’ll need to have a compatible device, and at launch that doesn’t include Roku, Amazon Fire or, surprisingly, a PC or Mac computer. Here’s what is supported today, and how it compares to the other guys.
To its credit Hulu says it’s working to add support for more devices, including computers, Roku, Fire TV, and Samsung Smart TVs “soon.”
Show-centric interface, with family profiles
Every Hulu subscriber will eventually gain access to what the company calls “The New Hulu Experience.” For Hulu subscribers who don’t spring for live TV, the new interface is currently available on Xbox One, Apple TV and Android.
It’s a complete user-interface overhaul, with a new look and features including profiles for up to six family members (previously only available at Hulu.com and select devices), a kids’ mode restricted to age-appropriate programs, notifications, improved search and browse, and more. I got a tour in January and came away impressed.
For live subscribers, the interface cleverly combines live TV and on-demand. Like Netflix, PlayStation Vue and indeed Hulu itself, the focus is on individual shows instead of channels. When you set up your profile, it asks you to choose your favorite genres and shows. After that you can mark individual shows as something you’d want to watch again.
This user preference information is then used to recommend new shows (either live now or on-demand), which are presented in a personalized “lineup” along with shows you’ve watched before, next-episode style for easy bingeing.
Much like YouTube TV, you can also choose your favorite teams and the system will notify you when games go live and automatically record them when available. That’s great for games that appear on local broadcasts (ABC, Fox, and so on) or national sports networks such as ESPN, but if your team is on a regional sports network that isn’t offered by Hulu, you’re out of luck.
Early verdict: Worth a free trial
Like its competitors, Hulu offers a free trial of its live TV plan. And unlike cable, there’s no extra equipment fees or contracts, and you can cancel at any time. So if you’re interested, give it a shot.
The biggest issue, of course, is price. The $40 entry price is more than any of its competitors, aside from PlayStation Vue, which costs the same for its basic channel package. If you already subscribe to Hulu it’s a better bargain since you’ll save that $8 or $12 monthly charge, bringing the price for “just Live” down to $32 per month — lower than all of them aside from Sling TV. But that upcharge for the full-featured, ad-skippable cloud DVR is a killer, and brings the total price above what many cord cutters might be willing to pay.
I expect to have more information and hands-on impressions soon. In the meantime, if you decide to try it for yourself, let me know what you think in comments.
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