Hulu will soon combine live TV, on-demand to smack down cable (hands-on)

The popular on-demand subscription service is launching live TV later this year, and its new design looks great so far. Here's a sneak peek.

Hulu

Attention cable cord cutters: Hulu is about to get live.

Sometime later this year the subscription TV service, which currently offers a big catalog of on-demand TV shows from major networks, will roll out live TV, too.

The live version of Hulu will cost less than $40 per month for live channels from ABC/Disney, CBS and Fox as well as a bunch of cable channels (Note: CBS owns CNET). In some cities it will provide local broadcast feeds. It streams over the Internet, lets you cancel and re-up anytime, and doesn't require any contracts. In other words, more competition for cable TV and Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and DirecTV Now.

Thanks to its already massive on-demand library and show-centric approach to streaming, the new Hulu has the potential to outdo its live-TV-over-the-Internet competitors, making it that much easier for some users to cut the cord. With YouTube expected to launch live TV later this year, 2017 will bring more alternatives to cable TV than ever.

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Hulu


Many of the Hulu details aren't yet ironed out, for example pricing and release date, exact channel lineups (NBC/Comcast is still being negotiated), local cities available and pesky restrictions. But it's close enough to baked for Hulu to give me a spin.

I sat down with Richard Irving, vice president of product at Hulu, to get a taste. Even though I couldn't take photos or video of the new interface, Hulu provided a couple stock shots to go with the YouTube video below. Here's what else I learned.

The basics: Live + On-demand

  • Hulu's TV service will combine its full current on-demand catalog with live TV channels
  • Cost: "Less than $40 per month" for a version that allows two simultaneous streams
  • Availability: "In the first half of 2017"
  • Live channels confirmed so far: Time-Warner (CNN, TBS, etc), ABC (ABC, Disney, ESPN, etc), Fox (Fox, FX, Fox News, etc), CBS
  • Live channels that may be be added by launch: NBC/Universal (NBC, Bravo, Discovery, etc), AMC, Scripps Networks (HGTV, Food Network, Travl Channel, etc), Regional Sports Networks, others
  • Specific cities that receive local broadcast channels (ABC, Fox, CBS) have not been announced
  • Option to get Hulu's on-demand offerings ad-free (pricing TBD), but live TV will have ads
  • There will be a cloud DVR, but Hulu hasn't announced any storage limit
  • Shows on the DVR won't expire, like they do on Vue after 28 days
  • Up to 6 user profiles for individual family members
  • First wave of devices: Apple TV, iOS, Android, Chromecast, Xbox One (no word on when it will add Rokus or other devices)
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Hulu

Hulu redux

At the same time live TV launches on Hulu, every Hulu subscriber will gain access to what the company calls "The New Hulu Experience." It's a user-interface overhaul, a new look and features like profiles for up to six family members (currently only available at Hulu.com), notifications, improved search and browse, and more.

It looked very good during my hands-on with Irving, cleverly combining live TV and on-demand. Like Netflix, PlayStation Vue and indeed Hulu itself, the focus is on individual shows instead of channels. First-time profile setup asks you to choose your favorite genres and shows, and afterward you can mark individual shows as something you'd want to watch again.

This user preference information is then used to recommend new shows (either live now or on-demand), which are presented in a personalized "lineup" along with shows you've watched before, next-episode style for easy bingeing.

Subscribers to the live version of the service can easily mark shows as "watch later," which saves them to a personal "cloud DVR" that stores shows just like a standard hard-drive-based DVR from your cable company (including the ability to fast-forward through commercials). Unlike a similar feature available on PlayStation Vue, Irving says the shows will not expire after a set time limit. Storage limits were not disclosed.

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Hulu

Sports, as much as Hulu offers it, is handled nicely. You can choose your favorite teams and the system will notify you when games go live and automatically record them when available.

That's great for games that appear on local broadcasts (ABC, Fox, etc) or sports networks like ESPN, but channels specific to certain teams (known as regional sports networks, or RSNs) could be a weakness of the system. Sling, Vue and DirecTV now have only spotty coverage of such networks, like YES (Yankees baseball) and Comcast SportsNet Northwest (Trail Blazers basketball), and Hulu hasn't announced any.

All told I was impressed by what I saw so far. As long as the service doesn't get bogged down by restrictions or launch with major holes in programming, it could provide another strong consideration for people looking to cancel cable TV.

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