Those of us who live on the web love technology. We revel in the power it gives us, the control over our environment is exciting and invigorating, isn’t it? Control over our media is a particularly sacred gift. We download, organize, archive and play our massive MP3 collections. We rip, sort, and catalog our favorite DVDs, building a personal library that’s playable across all manner of devices and platforms. But there’s one area of personal entertainment that we lovers of technology can’t quite wrestle down — Television.
See, the thing with television is that it’s the content that matters, not necessarily the technology. We’ve already figured out how to deal with generic video in its digital form, that’s not the issue — gaining access to the particular programming unique to television, that’s the issue. So what’s a geek to do?
How does one get to use all the best techno-tricks — time shifting, social media, an all-you-can-watch catalog — on the content of television? Hulu, that’s how.
Today we’re going to take a look at what Hulu can do, put it through its paces, explore it’s subscription option (Hulu Plus), and decide whether or not it lets us cut the cord on our monthly cable bill.
Why Does Hulu Exist?
I think it’s a fair question, and an important foundation for the rest of this article. See, from a technological standpoint, Hulu’s really no different from YouTube. You visit a site and watch streaming videos via a Flash plugin. The key difference is content. YouTube is built upon a community of users that upload their own videos, creating a now monstrous catalog. Hulu has a different kind of “user base” — NBC Universal, FOX Entertainment Group, and ABC, Inc.
Wait, lets back up a minute, did I just say NBC, FOX, and ABC? Three of the biggest TV companies in the US? The same three companies who have a huge stake in keeping cable television a viable and profitable business?
Why would they want to create a website hosting their precious shows online when they want every household paying a cable subscription? Simple. They know things are changing. That’s what technology does, changes things. And they want to test the waters of this strange new world before their old one crumbles in on itself.
And so we get to be guinea pigs. But we’re willing guinea pigs, we’ve been clamoring for an option like this for ages, even cobbling together our own using things like YouTube in less than legal ways. What’s important is to keep Hulu’s background in mind. It’s a product of the “Old World”, and it’s far from comfortable in this new digital realm. So when they don’t push the envelope, or fulfill all our wildest dreams, let’s not be too surprised, okay?
What Can Hulu Do?
Alright, now that we understand why Hulu is what it is, let’s see what it can do. What does Hulu offer that none of the competition does?
Hulu’s single biggest asset is it’s library of content. It’s the single thing that makes Hulu unique. Or does it? Hulu gets its catalog from it’s three founding partners, NBC, FOX, and ABC, right? Well, another popular subscription-based streaming video provider — Netflix — also gets access to NBC, FOX, and ABC’s catalogs.
So, does that render Hulu’s competitive advantage moot? Well, not really. Netflix still requires a monthly subscription to access it’s streaming catalog, $7.99 to getcha in the door, while Hulu’s base offerings are free. If you’re one of the more than 10 million Netflix subscribers though, the price difference may not be important. If you’re not, then it certainly is.
But that doesn’t mean Hulu’s catalog is duplicated lock, stock, and barrel over on Netflix. Hulu has partnerships with a large number of cable networks as well, including Bravo, FX, the USA Network, Syfy, and G4. This gives them access to shows like White Collar, Burn Notice, and Covert Affairs — all from the USA Network — that Netflix doesn’t have. You can watch the latest episode of any of these shows on Hulu. Latest episodes. Nice segue to…
Episode Subscriptions and Your Queue
Creating an account on Hulu.com is free, though it’s not the same thing as subscribing to Hulu Plus (we’ll get to that later) but it does allow you to “subscribe” to television series. When you subscribe to a series, Hulu automatically adds any new episode to your Queue.
To check up on what’s new since your last time on Hulu, all you have to do is check your queue, and you’ll get a personalized view of what to watch, sorted reverse chronologically.
This concept of a queue is really nice. It’s probably my favorite of Hulu’s features. It’s the kind of feature that I’m looking for in a new solution to consuming television. It’s time shifting — changing the time that I watch something from the time it initially airs — and it’s exactly what I want, what I know technology allows, but is far from simple. Hulu kindly collects together everything I want to watch, holding it for me until I’m ready to watch it.
Well, it has some. By definition, it kind of needs to I guess; every site does anymore. Hulu doesn’t really have anything special, all the basics are there: share to Facebook, share to Twitter, import your friends from either of those to Hulu and see if they use the site too.
One interesting feature is per-series discussion pages. While they tend to be more on the critical side of the show in question, they’re a neat idea, and an interesting read if you watch out for the flames.
Hulu Plus — Worth the Money?
Alright, so now the million dollar question, or at least the $7.99/month one. What do I get with Hulu Plus? The answer, sadly, is not really all that much.
Hulu advertises an expanded catalog of content as the prime reason from subscribing, and there certainly is one. The expanded library of content brings Hulu more inline with Netflix’s selection. Now whole seasons of series are available, back catalogs, shows that can now only be seen in syndication — and some that aren’t even in syndication.
If that kind of content interests you, if you’re a fan of retro television, you want to watch Lost from the beginning, or get started on Desperate Housewives, then Hulu’s back catalog is right up your alley and might be worth the monthly fee. If you’re a fan of reclining on a comfy couch while watching TV, there’s something else Hulu Plus can offer.
The other thing Hulu Plus offers is access to Hulu’s content from multiple devices. The big name to hit the news was Apple and its iOS devices. Hulu offers a free app on the App Store that you can download and use if you have Hulu Plus.
Android hasn’t gotten love from Hulu yet, but there’s supposed to be an app in the works. Where big screens are concerned, Hulu’s baked into Samsung, Sony, and Vizio app-enabled TVs and Blu-ray players. You can also get it on Roku’s Streaming Player and the Sony PlayStation 3. So if you’re the proud owner of any of those devices, Hulu Plus could be even more useful to you.
The Final Verdict
Ok, so I’ve been a little hard on Hulu here. But its tough love. I see so much potential in Hulu, and I really like what they’ve produced so far. I honestly feel, if you’re not a heavy watcher of upper cable channels — I’m thinking HGTV, the Food Network, Animal Planet — then I do think you could replace your cable connection with Hulu, especially if you own one of the televisions or set-top boxes that supports Hulu.
You get access to the latest and greatest episodes of a whole host of television shows right after they’ve aired, instead of needing to wait for an entire season to show up on Netflix. If you feel like Hulu Plus’ extensive back catalog and multiple device support is worth the $7.99/month price tag, then give it a try — Hulu offers a 7 day trial.
I challenge you, dear reader, to examine your TV watching habits, and see whether or not Hulu offers everything you’re looking for in big name media entertainment. You might find you’re able to cut that cable bill of your’s down significantly.