Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Week with Hulu Plus, and Why Netflix Still Wins

There's really nothing special about it, and I barely used it; sadly, that's pretty much the review. In brief: Hulu Plus' selection isn't impressive; you still watch ads; and it's not cheap enough. In this economy, you can find a better use for your $8/month.

A little bit ago, when I was bored out of my mind, I realized that Hulu Plus offers a one week trial. I posted about "Hulu Plus" before, and consider the whole idea (paid-free tv) a "little big deal." So I decided to kill an hour with the expanded options from the trial. I only had to fill out one online form to solve one boring night.

There was a lot of confusion and frustration at the start. Articles and announcements stated that whole seasons of many shows would be available, but that wasn't what I got. So I began by looking for a cure to boredom, and wound up doing research for this article. That too, is a review in itself: I went looking for fun, and it became an academic exercise because I wasn't overwhelmed by cool videos to watch.

For example, Hulu Plus doesn't offer you every season of "House" (not for streaming on Netflix, btw); I thought they would. The service just offers all the episodes shown during the current season. Well, what if I've heard this season is nothing worth tuning in for? If I'd been hoping to watch the first season and see how House got so popular, I would've been pretty disappointed.

So, right out of the gate, I found an issue that really made me stop at the question: "why should I pay Hulu $8 for something when I would already get most of what I want for free?" But there's more...

"Dollhouse" was announced as a show available on Hulu Plus. I like Joss Whedon's writing, and I figured I would check it out with my free trial; I actually felt like I was "stealing" the show since I never really planned to switch from Netflix to Hulu. No need for guilt, though! My Hulu Plus membership only allowed me to watch a bunch of clips with the "Dollhouse" cast. Yay.

So I know that some shows got a lot of mileage out of Hulu, building free viewers outside of primetime airings - I'd heard that about "Heroes," "Chuck..." Well, Hulu Plus doesn't allow you to watch every season of "Chuck;" same as "House," it's just the current run of the show. Good lord, when will that string of eps change? When May comes, will the whole set disappear? Or does that happen when the next season starts?

Time and again, I looked up any show I could think of - whatever network and cable names that I could bring to mind. "Human Target," "Fringe," "Castle," "Lie to Me," "Burn Notice." Sorry if they all sound like dumb shows, but it's tv!

Even a series I genuinely love (and am repulsed by), like "I Survived..." - I barely got more than I could from freely tuning into primetime or going onto network websites. If I were the sort of person who followed tv shows - or just caught up on Hulu every 4 weeks (good idea!) - I wouldn't really get anything at all from my Hulu Plus membership.

My quest to end boredom? I researched for at least 30 minutes and then found something - "Archer." Even there, I first found "Archer" when I watched three of the ten eps that were on Netflix streaming. The first season of the show has a DVD released this month, so it's gone from Netflix. Hulu - sorry, I mean "Hulu Plus" - only has 3 of those episodes right now. Every time, it's not enough for the extra $.

So what's left to recommend about the Hulu Plus lineup? I can't sound very eager saying that you get every episode of "Buffy," "Lost," "Angel," "The X-Files," "Arrested Development" and "Stargate SG1." That would depend on either you or me actually liking those shows. It's pretty heavy nerd fan-fare, and it's nice and all, but it's not worth $8 x 12 months=$96/year. It's a little too pricey.

Hulu Plus needs to offer a lot more quality and/or variety than it does right now. The model needs fine-tuning and tweaking, and I don't need complicated arguments to prove my point: Netflix has the full run of those six shows, and asks the same price for a larger selection. For Pete's sake, Hulu offered every episode of "Lost" before its final season aired!

Here's another big problem: you still have to watch commercials. Really!: 4x per show, just like usual; ads still trigger when you "rewind" more than one act; and the ever-hated "random multiple commercials per break" issue remains. None of these deterrents were changed at all, and it's not because of my trial membership - you watch commercials on shows that you're now paying to watch.

Again, why would I go with Hulu Plus? Are you supposed to be paying for the convenience of not having to store DVDs that you can resell? Not having to make a physical DVD is the sort of reduced cost that should make Hulu Plus cheaper or offer even more variety.

At the very least, Hulu's player is still better than what you get from Netflix. I understand that both companies have to make sure that you can't copy the videos you're watching, but Hulu's ability to seamlessly skip is a huge advantage. Anyone who's ever streamed a movie from Netflix has missed a line or looked away from the screen, then felt very annoyed by rewinding right into a new loading screen.

It's a weird dynamic, because a broken internet connection will stop Hulu videos immediately. The loading system of Netflix, however, allows you to keep watching; if it loaded fully and you don't need to rewind, that is... Weird dynamic, right?

And Hulu is still miles ahead of Netflix just for offering multiple languages and captions. Again, I'm sure these are benefits and flaws in the players both companies use. Still, I don't watch any Jackie Chan movies on Netflix, because all Hong Kong and Kung Fu movies are in English dub only.

The odd thing is that these little flaws are going to actually become big issues now that Netflix increased their fees and offered streaming-only service. Once you've got to put your money down on the table, you can really start to demand more for your buck.

Of course, this just leads a corporation to figure out a way to offer you a teensy bit more and charge you a whole dollar for it. That's not communism or sarcasm, that's "the realities of the business world." I can't help but feel that I had peanuts tossed at me, and now I'm being asked to pay for cashews... Pretty soon, the metaphorical question becomes how good you want your cashews to be, if you're going to have to pay for them. Or you could just do it all for free, and legally, with a little bit of effort.

Fortunately for all of us, I don't need to use another metaphor or go on about the new Netflix and Hulu options, where it might lead, what it all means... I can conclude all of this pretty simply:

If there was an online streaming war right now, Hulu would lose. There's no real competition in terms of selection: Hulu can give you a limited glimpse of almost everything on tv right now, but Netflix still wins by miles. And my trial offer showed me little/no innovation - nothing to make Hulu Plus a smart choice. Finding a good distraction took too much effort.

In the end, I hope that this gut feeling proves wrong: when I look at this whole "funtime" experience that became work, it's almost as if Hulu went to a pay model just so Netflix could raise their prices and charge for online service. The only market for tv and movie streaming is through ITunes and Amazon, and they're both different types of businesses. Is this just an artificially-createad new battleground for cash? Will it turn out like "Frankenstein?"

My prediction is that this is the sort of fight that costs the public more than anybody else. How would it cost the public? It's more likely now that Hulu, et al, will reduce what's available freely, isn't it? And, oh help me, paying for commercials? I'm not saying that Netflix was evil for joining Hulu - it just looks like the pair are competing with the market, not with each other.

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