Hulu is giving closed-door demonstrations of its upcoming internet TV service here at CES in Las Vegas. The fact that Hulu plans to challenge Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and DirecTV Now isn’t new; the company has been trickling out details — network agreements, mainly — over the last few months. This week Hulu revealed that its service will be priced at under $40 monthly. For reference, Sling starts at $20-per-month, Vue at $30 (or $40 in markets with live network programming), and DirecTV Now at $35. I’ve now seen what Hulu’s been working on, albeit very briefly, and it shows a lot of promise.
For Hulu’s asking price, you’ll get live TV, two simultaneous streams, a cloud DVR feature (with a “small” amount of storage according to SVP Ben Smith), plus the on-demand TV shows that the service is known for — movies, too. I had a chance to tour through a “near-pixel-perfect” demo of the new Hulu experience with Smith earlier this morning. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take photos or videos during the walkthrough, which is why every story you’ll read about this service uses the same three photos and teaser video.
Where Hulu is trying to differentiate itself from everyone else is with the experience. When you open the app, you’ll go through an on-boarding process that’s similar to signing up for Apple Music (and Beats Music before it). Hulu asks you to choose your favorite TV genres. After that, you’ll get a bit more granular and pick some individual show favorites, and the last step is ticking off your preferred cable networks. Done. You can skip right through all this, but Smith said that spending the couple minutes to complete it will drastically improve suggestions.
From there, the first menu you’ll see is called your Lineup. Here, Hulu gathers everything it thinks you want to watch right away. This can be a mix of live television and on-demand reruns of an episode you might’ve missed. You can tell Hulu to stop recommending content you’ve got no interest in, and Smith said networks and advertisers won’t be able to ruin this section with paid placement. Curated collections of movies and other content can be sponsored, but those are located elsewhere in the app and easy to ignore. The Lineup will change depending on your viewing habits and the time of day, as it takes into account what’s most popular and when.
Move over to the next menu section and you’re shown a far more thorough content selection, where existing Hulu users will feel at home. You’ve got your favorite shows, and can also scroll through separate areas for TV, movies, and those featured collections I mentioned earlier. There’s also a helpful section that highlights everything that’ll be leaving Hulu soon, giving you a chance to watch before it’s gone.
This part of the new Hulu looks fairly similar to PlayStation Vue. That’s something that can be said for a lot of the new look, actually. The main Lineup screen and its big text are an exception, but elsewhere a lot of this seems to be building off of Vue’s foundation. It’s heavy on big TV show artwork, like so:
There are only so many ways to build a TV interface, and I definitely prefer this style to what Sling TV and DirecTV Now are doing. The third menu column — the one with a grid of four rectangles — is about as close as Hulu gets to any sort of traditional on-screen “guide.” And there’s still really not one. You can look at what’s currently airing on live TV network by network, but there’s nothing resembling a cable guide.
When you’re watching something and pull up the menu, Hulu prioritizes your most recent channels first, so it’s easy to switch back and forth if you’re trying to keep up with multiple shows or sports. Smith wasn’t able to demo the app’s search section during our demonstration, but said it’s an area that Hulu is putting a lot of work into.
Hulu faces some of the same hurdles as its competitors, however. As with PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now, it’s highly doubtful that live programming from the big four networks will be available in many markets outside big cities. And then you’ve got the random annoyances brought about by licensing deals. You’ll be able to restart some shows already in progress, but not everything. Smith confirmed that users will at the very least be able to pause any network or show, and you can also rewind to whatever point you started watching from. The cloud DVR is also free of obvious, irritating restrictions, from what I’ve been told. Hopefully that’s true, because cable customers aren’t used to these weird obstacles and they could potentially prevent some people from making the switch.
I think what’s got me most excited about Hulu’s attempt at internet TV is the people behind it. Ben Smith and Richard Irving, VP of product management, worked at Microsoft and on the Xbox team for years. Their vision for reinventing TV certainly didn’t pan out on a video game console, but Hulu’s move to unite live TV and on-demand is letting them take another stab at it. There are no potential conflicts here, which can’t be said of Sling TV (owned by Dish) and DirecTV Now (owned by AT&T, which owns DirecTV’s satellite business.)
No one has managed to nail this yet. Hopefully Hulu will be get us a little closer. But both Sling TV and DirecTV Now have promised big improvements to their services in the coming months, and YouTube is working on something. So perhaps by this time next year, someone will have perfected the cable replacement — or at least come close enough for most of us.
Onto the TL:DR FAQ we go.
What’s it called?
Hulu. Just Hulu. Not Hulu Live or Hulu TV or anything like that. Hulu is combining live, linear TV and its existing on-demand service into a single, completely redesigned app.
When does it launch?
“In the coming months.” Hulu has been actively testing the service among employees and family / friends, and plans to offer a public beta as well. Smith said the goal is to work out any kinks over the spring / summer and have a polished, feedback-driven product by next fall.
How many channels will it have?
Unknown. The company hasn’t publicly commented on what its channel lineup will look like. Hulu has signed agreements with ABC (including Disney and ESPN), CBS, and Fox. It hasn’t yet finalized a deal with NBCUniversal, but the company is optimistic about getting one in place by launch.
Will it have The Walking Dead?
Potentially! Hulu’s on-demand service doesn’t currently stream TV’s most popular show, but if it’s carried by the live service, you’ll be able to record it with Hulu’s cloud DVR. The live TV half of this new Hulu might be able to make up for holes in the SVOD catalog.
How many devices can I stream on at the same time?
The base monthly subscription allows two simultaneous streams. That’s going to result in the same frustration and complaints that some consumers expressed at the launch of DirecTV Now.
But! Hulu is planning to offer an extra (paid) monthly add-on that dramatically increases the stream limit to a number where “you’d never have to worry about it,” Smith told me. PlayStation Vue continues to lead the pack here, as its base package allows up to five simultaneous streams.
How much cloud DVR space do I get?
Unknown. Ben Smith described the amount included with the sub-$40 package as “small.” Just like with the streaming limit, subscribers will be able to pay more each month to increase cloud storage. If a TV show is available in Hulu’s traditional SVOD catalog after you’ve recorded it, the app can replace your cloud recording with the on-demand version to conserve DVR space.
What else is different about what Hulu’s doing?
Notifications, for one. Hulu will let you choose sports you’re interested in and select your favorite teams. You’ll be notified when games featuring those teams are about to start. But even for sports that you’re just casually interested in, Hulu might send you a notification when any game is getting particularly interesting or fun to watch — just as you see in that video.
Notifications will also be sent to alert you of expiring content. It’s expected that users will get granular control over this stuff; all it takes is a few annoying notifications for someone to switch them off permanently. Hulu doesn’t want that.
What about sports?
If live ABC, CBS, and Fox are offered in your area, you can watch whatever game is on. (Blackout rules probably apply). Verizon still has its stranglehold on watching NFL games with your smartphone, but any other device should be fair game. Other regional sports channels like Fox Sports will be included, according to Smith. But Hulu hasn’t reached agreements with certain team-centric stations like YES and the LA Dodgers network.