On Tuesday, Hulu—lovers of free, streaming television and clearly fans of my column—announced Hulu Plus.
“But Brad, didn’t you suggest the very same thing just months ago?” Why, yes I did. “Wow! You’re really insightful!” Well, thanks. “Wait, so you just wrote about Hulu a few months ago? Why can’t you think of new topics? Half the time your column isn’t even talking about the Internet! iPhone lines, people using their GPS, TiVo—those aren’t about the Web!” This is quickly becoming a conversation I no longer want to participate in.
Hulu Plus’ announcement is a big deal. The plain-Jane Hulu has been a great first step in bringing TV mass-consumption to a new screen, free of any real constraints: No waiting for a show to air or missing the first few minutes, no extra fees, no grasp of technology required. Hulu Plus ups the ante on all fronts, and its slogan—“More wherever. More whenever. Than ever.”—exemplifies that. Let’s run down the pros and cons of the new service. (“A pros and cons list? Are you even trying?” SHUT UP!)
More Content—In a letter on Hulu’s blog from CEO Jason Kilar, he promises full seasons for shows currently on the air—House, Modern Family, The Office—and classic series—Arrested Development, The X-Files, Grey’s Anatomy (having Grey’s Anatomy is a selling point—and people wonder why nobody likes America). This is a huge jump from the current offering, which amounts to, at best, five episodes of shows currently on the air and a hodgepodge of clips and featurettes. PRO
More Places—Hulu was initially accessible only through Hulu.com. Later on, Hulu Desktop was released. The standalone application basically cuts out a Web browser from the equation—just double-click it like iTunes or AIM—and has a more robust layout with better navigation. But Hulu Desktop is still Hulu Desktop, i.e. it’s on your computer. Hulu Plus is set to be available on (deep breath): iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Xbox360, PlayStation 3, Internet-enabled TVs, Blu-ray players and “other platforms and devices.” As great as it is to have an improved archive, I think this is the biggest selling point. Hulu is fighting a very similar battle now that Netflix was fighting a few years ago, and while it was probably inevitable that a service where people can get any movie they want without leaving their homes would catch on—remember, playing the Wii for 20 minutes now passes for exercise, expanding as quickly as it did to other outlets has made Blockbuster and the like things of the past. PRO
HD—Hulu offered high-definition content for a little while, but canned the feature for some unknown reason. Maybe that reason was to offer another incentive when a subscription launched. Plus bring back 720p content, so watching Hulu on a large monitor or beaming it to your tube won’t look disgusting anymore. PRO
Ads—Despite being a pay service, Hulu Plus will have ads. They will still be the 30-second clips spaced at intervals like commercial breaks on terrestrial TV. The reason behind this is likely that their ad revenue dwarfs whatever they will make from monthly subscription fees. I’ve read a few articles online whose authors are completely irate at this. I don’t think it’s such a big deal, and you can still get through a half-hour episode in 22 minutes. But still, if I see one more spot for Bud Light Wheat during an episode of Family Guy—great beer, don’t get me wrong—I’ll do something drastic. CON
Pricing—The back-alley whispering pegged the cost of whatever premium service Hulu launched at between $5 and $10. Plus came out on the upper end of that range—it’ll cost $9.99 per month. The feature set is solid and can only get bigger, but in the meantime, $9.99 is too high. There needs to be more enticing to get potential Hulu Plusers signed up. Netflix subscribers still seek out movies through other outlets; similarly, people who would consider Plus won’t abandon their Cablevision or FiOS contract right away. At that point, it becomes a question of how much they can tolerate adding on to their monthly expenses for TV, and to me, $10 isn’t easy to swallow. Halving it is far more appealing. CON
The Wait—I put my e-mail address in the dropbox for an invitation on Tuesday, but there’s no timetable for when Hulu Plus will be available to the masses, other than an ominous “as soon as we’re ready” in Kilar’s blog post. If the wait is anything like the one for the original Hulu, it’ll be about a month before I’m knee-deep in season one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By doing an invite-only rollout, Hulu is banking on positive viral word-of-mouth to drive excitement. A much better approach would have been an Apple-esque, available-starting-today launch. CON
Hulu is not quite the nail in terrestrial TV it can be. But it’s only a matter of time, and Plus is the start of that. Much like Blockbuster’s CEO is lucky to still have a job, cable’s clock is ticking.
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Hulu is also giving away invitations to Hulu Plus through Twitter. You follow them, they periodically tweet out 100 or so invite codes. Google did this to great success with Google Wave; hopefully Plus doesn’t suck as much as that thing did.