As a writer and hopeless Internet addict, I probably spend more time in front of my laptop than I’d like to admit, banging out articles, reading blogs, instant messaging co-workers and friends, and viewing media. Whereas the average American now spends an estimated 34 hours a week in front of the television, it’s fair to say I spend at least double that in front of a computer screen. And don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But all that quality time has made me rethink my media consumption habits. Now, I watch a good chunk of my TV via Hulu, and after a reported 813 million unique Hulu streams in May, I’m clearly not alone in that regard.
Launched in March 2007, Hulu, owned by News Corp. (NWSA), Disney (DIS) and NBC Universal, positioned itself as a one-stop hub that streams some of my favorite past and present shows — some so trashy I refuse to name them — while I go about my online business. And because it was free, I was more than happy to overlook Hulu’s glaring shortcomings: the ability to only view the five most recent episodes of any viewable currently-running show, 30-second or so commercial breaks, and a laughable movie selection that makes Netflix Instant, with its own finite catalog, look downright completist in comparison.
When Hulu announced Hulu Plus, I wanted it. Bad. More shows to choose from! Entire series runs! And perhaps most exciting for someone like me who’s tethered to some computing device at all times: mobile apps! So what if there was a monthly fee of $9.99? Who cares if I looked like a social deviant watching reality TV streamed to my WiFi iPad via Verizon MiFi on the way to work? I could finally “cut the cord,” cancel my crappy Cablevision subscription, and live off Hulu and Netflix.
I requested a Hulu Plus invite — currently in beta, Hulu Plus is invite-only — and waited until earlier this week, when the email invite finally hit my inbox. I gave my credit card info, downloaded the Hulu Plus apps for my iPhone and iPad, and prepared myself to be “wowed.”
I’m still waiting.
Twenty-four hours later, I’ve realized those expectations were unrealistic. Sure, some shows are available in their entirety, but bear in mind that for every prime time hit like Grey’s Anatomy, there are just as many duds like Lipstick Jungle or the gut-wrenchingly painful Heroes. Also, I’ve counted little more than 30 shows available in their entirety, which, no matter how you slice it, is slim pickings. Meanwhile, other shows like The Office and House are restricted to what Hulu calls “Season Tickets,” or the most recent season, which can run anywhere between 12 and 25 episodes.
Chalk up much of that limited catalog to network cooperation, or lack thereof. While NBC, ABC and FOX are on-board, CBS (CBS) has yet to cut a deal with Hulu, so none of its shows can be found on the site. Same thing goes for cable networks like USA and HBO (which, like Fortune, is owned by Time Warner). What cooperating networks have made available is oddly hit-or-miss, too: currently, Hulu Plus users only have access to the 25 most recent episodes of Lost, but on abc.com, every single episode is watchable — for free.
As for those iPad and iPhone apps, I should give credit where it’s due. For the most part, the Hulu Plus mobile experience is seamless. The user-interface is clean, easy to navigate, and extremely responsive, much more so than Netflix’s own iPad app, which offers a slow and ultimately frustrating experience despite a recent software update that supposedly reduces processor usage. In contrast, watching a show on my iPhone with AT&T’s notoriously temperamental 3G service was a pleasure. Though they clearly haven’t worked out all the bugs yet. The app crashed on me once during testing, but once I logged back in on any one of my devices, Hulu picked up where I’d left off. And currently, Hulu Plus is not available on other devices, although the company plans to roll-out support for TVs, Blu-ray players, and traditional video game consoles through 2011.
Probably what bothered me the most weren’t the arbitrary limitations of Hulu Plus’s catalog — I figure eventually, this situation will change — but the irksome ads. I’ve long since accepted commercial breaks in network and cable programming on TV, and I even learned to tolerate shorter ads while streaming free video online. But paying for substantial monthly online subscription fees and still having to put up with ads strikes me as appalling, particularly when compared to business models from similar online ventures like Netflix Instant or even Pandora’s premium service, Pandora One, both of which don’t feature ads.
Ultimately, the sum of Hulu Plus’ parts don’t add up to an enticing service, let alone something I’d continually pay $9.99 for — at least, not yet.