The latest entry in the virtual MVPD category from Hulu is a good one. At $0.68 a channel with a full DVR and great user experience it represents a good value.
In the San Francisco Bay area, Hulu Live includes 59 channels. These include ABC, NBC, Fox, and CBS, but other popular locals like KQED (PBS) and KDTV (Univision) are not.^ News hounds will be very happy with all four of the major 24×7 news channels included. Sports fans will also be pleased, as ESPN and Fox Sports are included along with CBS and NBC Sports, and several regional sports networks. Many other favorites like TNT, HGTV, and SyFy are also included.
All in all, the base price of $39.99 a month seems a pretty reasonable cost, particularly as it includes DVR services. If you already subscribe to Hulu’s on-demand library (and 12+M do,) it will only cost an additional $31.99 to upgrade.
Hulu offers two expansions to live. One increases DVR storage from 50 hours to 200, and allows a user to fast-forward through ads in recorded content. The other increases the number of concurrent screens that can be using the service from 2 at a time to unlimited. Both these options cost an additional $14.99 a month.
Hulu has created a new interface which seamlessly blends live viewing with the on-demand experience. It does all this without the help of a traditional grid guide. The first major difference is that Hulu requires users to create a profile and login with it. In the basic service, up to 6 profiles can be created. Hulu customizes the interface based on profile, and the company promises to improve that personalization as it learns more about each user.
Live TV does not play by default. However, there are multiple ways to access live content. The traditional view is through the folders menu item. Selecting Networks shows a list of currently playing shows. The view can be switched to channel icons organized by category, or in a straight A through Z list.
Channel change time was an acceptable 3.5-4 seconds, and the picture ramped up to full HD quality in 10 to 20 seconds.
The interface smoothly blends recorded content with shows from the on-demand library. For example, I found an upcoming episode of This is Us and added it to my list. When I went to look at the This is Us in
“My Stuff” the up-coming episode was listed right next to all the episodes available on-demand.
One nice but confusing feature was the ability to go back to the start of a show in progress (sometimes called replay service.) This wasn’t listed as a feature, but I found I could scrub backwards in the timeline right after joining a show in progress on HGTV and Fox. Unfortunately, it didn’t work on every channel. ABC and ESPN wouldn’t allow me to do this.
Hulu says you must pay extra to fast-forward through ads. However, I could skip forward in 10-second increments in recorded content. I can’t be sure this feature works on every channel, but it certainly worked on the national ABC news show.
The Hulu Live experience is very smooth and polished, and impressive for a first release. This is in marked contrast to DirecTV Now which had many problems when it was first made available. The base live package is a pretty good value, though the enhancements seem expensive for the incremental value they deliver.
With a plentiful supply of sports, general entertainment, and DIY content, it could be a realistic alternative to traditional pay TV for those willing to forgo a couple of channels they like.
Why it matters
Hulu’s entry into the virtual MVPD space is a creditable effort.
A good selection of channels, DVR functionality, and smooth integration of on-demand content make it a good buy at $39.99 a month.
Streaming performance, and channel change time are both good, delivering a solid TV experience.
^All four major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) are only available in 5 markets today: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago.