Is Hulu Plus worth $10 a month? It all depends on the programming you like to watch, how much of it you want to access and how often. I’ve been using the long-anticipated subscription service from the joint venture of Disney (NYSE: DIS), News Corp (NSDQ: NWS) and NBC Universal (NSDQ: CMCSA) since the day after the June 29 launch. Given that I’m a subscription addict, I was fairly sure I’d wind up keeping it after my free review month. One week in, not so much. Here’s why — and why your mileage may vary:
Programming: Hulu Plus has three natural constituencies: cord cutters or people who never had a cord to cut but are willing to pay a little a month; multichannel video subs adding layers to what they already get; and fans of particular shows or genres. I straddle the last two, in part because I gave up appointment viewing for most scripted shows years ago, opting instead to watch in bursts.
A week is long enough to be wowed by what’s available and disappointed by what’s not. Instant access to Glee‘s first year without backflips, especially the half we missed — wow. Friday Night Lights, which I’ve been meaning to binge on, not quite a wow. Turns out there are only 8 episodes from this season on Hulu Plus. I could watch the entire final season of 24 or Lost but none of the previous seasons.
Still, it’s a good start. In the sci-fi-ish range, Hulu Plus has every episode of Heroes; X-Files; Quantum Leap; Roswell; Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Angel; and even Lost in Space. Soapy prime time? Full library of Desperate Housewives, all 70 episodes of Ugly Betty and an odd Dynasty imitator from Canada called “The Wild Roses” that lasted for only 13 episodes. Classics? Every episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, including the evil walnut episode with Danny Thomas; The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Instant canceled classics? All of Arrested Development, My So-Called Life.
If movies are your primary interest, then Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX) and its basic plan for $9 a month make more sense. But if current TV matters most and you’re interested in primetime shows from equity partners ABC, NBC or Fox, with occasional forays into other programming, it’s either Hulu Plus for access to multiple series or pay for a season pass per show on iTunes or possibly Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN). Netflix has the first seven seasons of 24 but its streaming TV library ends at 2009 for now.
The lack of CBS (NYSE: CBS) and the effort to avoid competing with cable means that a lot of the shows I want to catch up with aren’t available. None of the quirky USA shows, for instance, no HBO, Showtime or the Good Wife (only four full episodes on CBS.com). Adding CBS might not make a difference to a lot of potential subscribers but it would be a tipping point for me — as would hearing that Hulu Plus will get the back seasons of the current series.
Usability: Hulu Plus can work very smoothly and it can be a bit glitchy. I tested it on a WiFi iPad on different networks, through the browser on a Windows 7 Media Center PC connected to an HD living-room set, an iPhone 3GS, an 11-inch laptop and a desktop with a 24-inch screen. CEO Jason Kilar promised an experience that would feel familiar and be adapted to each device. Hulu delivered. Hulu Plus is instantly recognizable and usable by anyone who has used free Hulu.com, even on the iPhone — and the video quality was good across the board. The functionality changes — no sharing or embedding from an iPad, for instance. But Hulu has tried to make it seamless.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. On the iPad, I get frequent “no internet access” messages even if it shows that I’m connected. Some episodes of Glee worked fine on the TV-PC setup; some had to be constantly restarted and one flat out got stuck. The feature that is supposed to remember where you are in a show and offer to restart it when you open the program — even when you change platforms — works flawlessly sometimes and leaves you in oblivion at others. Sometimes it shows up, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it remembers the spot in the show, sometimes it doesn’t. With the stuck episode (#17, Bad Reputation), it froze on the TV-PC and, even after I closed the browser and rebooted, showed in use on the other devices. I finally got it to play on the iPad a couple of days later. That same night, we watched an old war movie from Hulu.com without a tech glitch.
Ads: I get that Hulu is following the cable model by charging fees and selling advertising and I can go along with it — to a point. But inserting the same number of ads as the free service plus forcing ads whenever various actions take place would be annoying if you weren’t paying. When you are paying, the annoyance level goes up exponentially. I rarely watch movies on AMC because of the commercial interruptions and after one movie on Hulu, I’m close to the same policy. Some possibilities: offer an ad-free version for a few more bucks; include X number of ad-free hours a month; limit the extra ads when a user moves around in the show — it feels like a punishment sometimes; make the software sensitive enough enough to know when someone just saw an ad and is rebooting a show.
Price of admission: On the latte or movie scale, $10 a month is rational. (Technically, it’s $9.99.)If you get a few hours of entertainment, you’re even. If you’re judging it against “free” as in completely ad supported, it may seem like too much — unless you’re comparing it to cable or satellite, and then it may feel like a bargain. Downloading the last season of Lost from iTunes in HD would cost as much as five months of Hulu Plus; standard runs $33. If ownership or being able to watch offline doesn’t matter and currency does, the economics lean toward Hulu Plus. If you don’t have any multichannel subscriptions and you’re looking for a low-cost alternative, try Hulu Plus and Netflix together for a while and spot fill the gaps with free viewing or purchases. If you do subscribe to cable or satellite and you still spend more money every month on video rentals and/or purchases, it may be worth a try.
Some people in any category will want to wait until Hulu Plus bulks up. As for me, stay tuned.