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Hulu stokes 'Handmaid's' hot streak by launching live TV too

The long-expected service with 50-plus live channels for $40 is the latest virtual-cable competitor. It comes as Hulu luxuriates in an ephemeral perk: buzz.

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Hulu's live-TV service coincides with word-of-mouth hype and critical plaudits for its original, "The Handmaid's Tale."

Hulu

Hulu couldn't have picked a better time to launch its live-TV streaming service.

After promising one year ago to launch a service with live-streaming TV channels within a year, Hulu made good on its vow Wednesday, rolling out a $40-a-month "skinny bundle" that adds more than 50 live channels to its Netflix-like tier for on-demand shows and movies.

It doesn't hurt that it arrives just as Hulu's original show "The Handmaid's Tale" is drumming up the kind of buzz that Hulu has longed to score while rivals like Netflix and Amazon passed it by. (Read the CNET review here.)

With live channels, Hulu joins a snowballing market for digital live TV, going up against Dish's Sling TV, Sony's PlayStation Vue, AT&T's DirecTV Now and most recently YouTube TV. But Hulu sets itself apart with a slightly different proposition than the rest of the pack: a combo of live TV with the full library of on-demand shows and movies it has been cultivating for a decade. And it comes as that mainstay on-demand service just struck its biggest competitive coup yet against rivals Netflix and Amazon.

Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins called it "TV come true."

"The Handmaid's Tale," which accidentally feeds upon liberal angst about the administration of President Donald Trump (it was in production before the election), has the highest critical rating of any new TV drama this season on Metacritic. Variety wonders whether it will bring Hulu the Emmy bona fides that have eluded it while Netflix and Amazon cleaned up.

Hilary Clinton even referenced the show and novel Tuesday in a speech supporting Planned Parenthood.

Also on Wednesday, Hulu green-lit a second season season of "The Handmaid's Tale" at a presentation to advertisers in New York known as a NewFront. A second season was a foregone conclusion. Hulu planned for it to be a continuing series, and its critical reception virtually guaranteed a pickup.

At the presentation, the company also said it would widen its pipeline of original shows to include a drama about Mars colonization, "The First," by the creator of Netflix's "House of Cards," Beau Willimon. It will launch a Marvel series, "Runaways."

It will also be the exclusive streaming service with rights to actor Donald Glover's FX comedy, "Atlanta," and to NBC breakout hit "This Is Us."

What it'll cost you

As for the live service, it costs $40 a month for 50-plus channels as well as access to Hulu's existing streaming library that includes ads. It's offering a seven-day free trial.

People who want to strip out commercials from on-demand shows can pay $4 more. The live service will always have ads. If you want to fast-forward through ads on your Hulu DVR, you'll need to pay at least $15 for an upgrade that also widens your DVR storage to 200 hours.

It will offer all the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC), sports channels like ESPN, cable networks like TBS and HGTV, 24-hour news like CNN and Fox News, kids programming like Disney Channel and some local TV affiliates, among other channels.

CNET's first take of Hulu with live TV dives into the details of the live service and compares it to rival options.

On Wednesday, Hulu also provided a different yardstick for the size of its audience. After touting its internal number of paying members in previous years, the company said it is switching to report unique viewers instead. The company said it's a more meaningful metric to advertisers and to the creators of its originals, who want to know how many people are watching.

The company reported 47 million unique viewers, as measured by a third-party, ComScore. Of those, 32 million see ads. Hulu, sans live TV, costs $8 a month for people willing to watch with some commercials and $12 a month for subscribers who want to strip out ads. One account can have as many as five or six viewer profiles, the company said.

Last May, the company said it was just shy of 12 million subscribers. A year earlier in 2015, Hulu was nearing 9 million.

Hulu is owned by ABC parent Disney, NBC parent Comcast and Fox parent 21st Century Fox, while Time Warner, which operates HBO and TBS, has a 10 percent stake.

First published May 3, 6:45 a.m. PT.
Update, 7:25 a.m. PT: With details from live presentation.

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