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Hulu revisited: Worthy of love and suspicion in equal measure

Jared Newman | July 3, 2015
If you haven't been paying attention to Hulu lately, the streaming-video service would like you to take a second look.

Hulu

If you haven't been paying attention to Hulu lately, the streaming-video service would like you to take a second look.

Over the last few months, Hulu seems to have rejuvenated itself. It cut a $160 million deal to stream every episode of Seinfeld, and it landed exclusive arrangements with FX (Sons of Anarchy) and AMC (Mad Men) to stream their newest shows. Hulu has also partnered with Showtime to offer its full catalog and live programming feed for $9 per month--that's $2 less than what you'd pay for Showtime's upcoming stand-alone service on an Apple TV, Roku, or PlayStation.

Hulu is also focusing squarely on its $8-per-month subscription service, dropping the "Plus" from its name and promising fewer commercials. And over the weekend, Hulu made a big appeal to Roku users, offering two months of its subscription service for free.

After years of lethargy, it seems like Hulu finally wants to be a real competitor to Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video. But as compelling as Hulu suddenly seems, I struggle as a cord cutter not to be wary of the service and what it might be trying to accomplish.

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It's impossible to compare Hulu with other services without bringing up advertisements. While Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and the new HBO Now are ad-free, most Hulu programming comes with commercial breaks. As Hulu tells it, this is the trade-off users must make if they want new shows the day after they air on cable--a major differentiator between itself and rival services.

In fairness, the ads aren't egregious. Each break tends to have just one or two commercials, and you'll get about four commercial breaks over the course of a 30-minute TV show. Hulu still hasn't solved the repetition problem--a day into my Roku trial, I'm already sick of the Trivago guy--but Hulu is at least sincere about reducing the ad load.

The problem is that advertising has become somewhat of a relic in today's TV environment, both for cable subscribers and cord cutters. A recent survey by Leichtman Research Group found that 62 percent of pay-TV subscribers have DVR service, which means most cable customers are free to skip commercials for anything that isn't live. And with Netflix being the dominant online video service in the United States, a lot of viewers are getting used to ad-free TV on the streaming side as well.

For that reason, Hulu's newfound push for exclusive shows feels like an attempt to force advertisements back into the equation. If Hulu can establish itself as the go-to source for hit shows on demand, it can make certain that you're seeing ads even when you're not watching in real-time.

 

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