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TV 101: Why Hulu Plus Will Change The Way You Watch Television

by Jay Black, posted Jul 8th 2010 1:00PM
Hulu PlusLast week Hulu announced plans for its new Hulu Plus service. Immediately following the announcement, internet commenters from around the world did something they rarely do: complained long and loud about the details of the announcement.

"The price is right, but they're still going to have ads? No thanks!" "So let me get this straight, they're giving us access to all the seasons of 'Arrested Development' -- which we already have now, for free! -- except now they want us to pay for them? Choke on your own genitalia and die, Hulu Plus!" said the usually very reasonable denizens of the interwebs.

While I'm never one to doubt the insightfulness of snap decisions, I think in this case the complaints are wrongheaded. Sure, the announced set of features for Hulu Plus leaves a little something to be desired, but get beyond that. What we're seeing right now is a game changer. Hulu Plus is about to take over the way we consume television.

There have been more than a few game changers in the history of TV -- color, HD, Farah Fawcett's nipple, etc. -- but today we're just going to focus on the steps that got the world ready for Hulu Plus.

Step One: VCRs

The VCR was the first really sensible way for people to watch movies whenever they wanted and record their shows when they weren't home. Except it really wasn't very good for watching movies and the only way you could get it to record consistently was to sprinkle it with centaur blood. Also, according to every stand-up comic from the years 1982-1989, all of them blinked 12:00 at all times of the day and night.

The important thing about the VCR was that it changed the way we thought about the TV. Instead of being at the beck and call of our TV overlords, watching at the exact time and place they said we had to, the VCR promised a future where we determined our own TV watching fate. If only the technology would catch up with that promise ...

Step Two: DVRs

... And it did with the invention of TiVo. I suppose the Digital Video Recorder was technically just a refinement of VCR technology, but the leap from VCRs to DVRs felt like the bone-to-spaceship match cut in '2001'.

The ease with which you were able to record on a DVR made the idea of timeshifting a show to fit your schedule not a hard-to-achieve novelty like on a VCR, but a God-given right. We're at the point now where no one ever expects to "miss" a show.

Step Three: DVDs

The other problem of the VCR -- giant, unwieldy tapes that tended to lose fidelity every time you actually watched one -- was solved by the DVD. The idea of archiving shows a season a time to watch at your convenience would have been preposterous in the VHS era; 'Law and Order' alone would require most homeowners to tack on an addition to their home and that's before you consider 'SVU' and 'Criminal Intent.' With DVDs however, the space became far more manageable -- more an eMachine than an ENIAC.

So TV fans began to believe that access to a show's back catalog was well within their rights. This idea is so ingrained in most of us it's hard to believe that, just 15 years ago, getting a complete set of even a popular show would have required the purchase of poorly dubbed VHS tapes in the back alleys of swap meets and comic book conventions. Now, though? We get annoyed if the fifth season of 'Mama's Family' isn't readily available at Best Buy (intolerable side note: it isn't!).

Step Four: Hulu Plus

Hulu Plus is the next logical link in this chain and is the paradigm for the next 10 years of TV consumption.

Here's what you get for your $9.95 a month: an entire season's worth of episodes for roughly 35 mainstream network shows. On top of that, you get thousands of archived episodes, including full series runs of shows like 'The Office,' '30 Rock', and 'Buffy.'

Even if you were interested in just 'Buffy,' a year's worth of Hulu Plus pays for itself ($120 for Hulu vs. $300 on DVD).

The real leap forward is that Hulu Plus is pretty much device agnostic. Unlike HBO Go from earlier this year, Hulu Plus doesn't care how or what you watch it on: if you have an internet connection and a screen, you're watching TV. iPads, iPhones, Playstations -- all of them will stream Hulu Plus.

It's right about now that you'll accuse me of being on Hulu's payroll. I'd like to be -- I have the same aversion to selling out that KISS does -- but that's not the reason I'm so excited for it.

I'm pimping Hulu Plus so hard because it's where those previous steps have been heading all along: the service allows you to time shift and place shift entire catalogs of network television legally for $9.95 a month (in HD!). This isn't iTunes over-pricing single episodes to the point of ridiculousness, this is a massive corporate entity reasonably pricing high quality content for viewing anywhere in the United States.

This is everything we've always asked for. We need to embrace it lest the networks get cold feet and decide to follow the music industry into the grave by trying to recapture some of that early-2000s DVD cash-cow magic. Do you want to pay $40 for a season of 'Nash Bridges' again? Neither do I.

That's why the early arguments against Hulu Plus are so grating. Yes, it has commercials in a paid service, but then, so does cable (and for a lot more money a month, I might add). Yes, its catalog is far from complete, but that's to be expected in the beginning phases of a new way of doing business. And yes, your subscription doesn't let you own the shows, but for most of us, convenience trumps ownership every time (I mean, walking all the way to the DVD player to watch something? Like a peasant?).

So, after criticizing internet commenters for their tendency to overstate, let me end on a relatively mild note: I'm not saying that Hulu Plus will initiate Ray Kurzweil's prediction of the singularity, but I'm pretty sure we'll all be watching a service a lot like it afterwards.

(Jay Black is a writer and a comedian who really hopes you like this column. For more information about Jay or to check out one of his live shows visit www.jayblackcomedy.net.)

[Follow @jayblackcomedy on Twitter]

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Why would you pay for Hulu plus with ads when you can watch Hulu for free on the internet? If you want access to the boxed DVD sets that Hulu plus is going to offer, you might as well pay $7.99/month [if my math is correct, $2 cheaper than Hulu plus] for Netflix that does not have ads and also offers a wider selection of movies that people have actually heard of.

If your argument is that you can take Hulu plus and watch it on any device, all you would need to experience regular free Hulu is a device that has flash capabilities and internet- something many devices with screens are becoming capable of. If you want to watch free Hulu on TV, just hook up your laptop to the TV.

Sure, Hulu plus is financially sensible in comparison to a cable subscription or buying DVDs but paying for something you already have right here on the internet for free does not make sense if they are still making you watch ads. It's like buying a pay per view show/movie with commercial interruptions.

Not sold.

October 16 2010 at 5:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I started off responding to this article with a "Netflix is awesome" bent, but the more I think about it the more I'm really disappointed in the intellectual laziness of this article. The history lesson and the expression of the fact that TV/movie subscriptions are the future is the easiest story in the world to write.

Your backing of the Hulu Plus horse for the upcoming war (which is what it will be) is so short-sighted. You wrote the easy story instead of thinking about the implications of giving the content providers the direct distribution channel (which while the two have been aggregating/merging/buying each other over the years has never been as direct as Hulu).

If Hulu wins this war we as are consumers aren't going to like the next iterations of Hulu Plus. Long-term as consumers Netflix will be our ally.

Things you should be writing about in this areana include:

- how Netflix isn't adding streaming content fast enough
- the dark future we as consumers and enthusiasts of good content would have if Hulu Plus wins

July 09 2010 at 9:39 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Alison's comment
Jay Black

I'm not sure I understand your point (other than calling me lazy - which, as a married man, I've been called so many times I'm all but immune to it!)

Are you saying that it's a bad idea that studios control their own content distribution (i.e. that Hulu's investors include both NBC and FOX)? If that's your fear, how is it all that different from the way we consume media now?

I'd like some further explanation as to why Netflix's continued success benefits us more than Hulu coming out on top. Not that I disagree, just that it's not clear from your comment.

As to your two things the article should have focused on --

1. My thoughts on Netflix not adding streaming content fast enough revolve around trust issues between the studios and the distributors. I have no information on this, but it seems to me that for whatever reason the studios don't trust Netflix or Apple to be their distribution platform on the net (this is backed up by the fact that so far Apple hasn't released a streaming service despite the rumors that Jobs really wants one).

2. Which leads me to your second point. My assumption is that you fear Hulu Plus winning the distribution war will lead to the internet's version of cable ($60 a month as soon as the competitors are gone and the same shabby service).

I can't see far enough down the road to know if this is true or not, but here's what I do know: something _like_ Hulu Plus is a necessity, born out of the market and the expectations of the consumers. We _should_ be getting it - in fact, we should have gotten it in 2005. The problem isn't the technology or the willingness of the consumer to pay a fair price for the product, it lies solely on the shoulders of the content owners being afraid of it. They'd prefer us to continue paying for DVD boxed sets until the end of time.

We should want Hulu Plus (or Netflix or some future company) to do one thing: make money for the networks. Not because we've been reading the "They Live" billboards for too long but because if Hulu Plus _doesn't_ make money, the networks will do what they always do: try unsuccessfully to shove the genie back in the bottle. I don't want to pay for DVDs anymore. I don't want to TiVo everything. I want instant streaming of all the shows on TV to any device I have connected to the internet. And, ideally, I'd like several services competing for the pleasure of my business.

If Hulu _loses_ the dark future is that the companies get scared and we have to use geeky (and in some cases illegal) workarounds.

(Sorry for the length of this response - I got going and couldn't stop. This is what happens when I reply to comments before breakfast).

July 09 2010 at 10:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Why are people comparing it to Netflix? You should be comparing it to cable. I pay 50-60 bucks a month for a whole lot of shows I don't watch. At least Hulu has the major networks and not the filler channels.

July 08 2010 at 4:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jim's comment
Jay Black

Agreed. I think Netflix is still a supplement to cable, while Hulu Plus is poised to become a replacement for it.

July 09 2010 at 2:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Netflix streaming is pretty awesome and is way better than Hulu. I've been rewatching the entire run of Lost this summer, in perfect HD, sans any ads, through my wireless-enabled TiVo, which is connected to my Netflix account. And for a small fee a month I can *still* get 2-at-a-time DVDs on top of the unlimited streaming. The Hulu deal BLOWS in comparison.

July 08 2010 at 3:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Disagree with the argument that "cable charges a subscription and has ads too!". Basic cable creates original content of much higher quality/budget than Hulu. Hulu has it's own little original shows and webisodes, but until they start creating Breaking Bads, Mad Mens, Burn Notices and Battlestar Galacticas of their own, comparing them to basic cable is ridiculous. Totally different businesses. For now.

But I do agree the game is changing and Hulu's right out front. They're a cool group of people.

July 08 2010 at 3:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Paul's comment

It's the same content; cable doesn't "create" content. It's just a "channel" (pardon the terminology) to access that content just like Hulu.

July 08 2010 at 4:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Jim, yeah I used the wrong word in saying basic cable networks "created" original content. Rather they distribute and air first-run original content, which is a significant investment with a very different business model than streaming other networks shows online.

July 08 2010 at 4:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Right on, Jay. I'm with you on this. I'm getting rid of cable as soon as they let me subscribe.

July 08 2010 at 2:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Why, you...

How much did they pay you to write this for them, Jay? HOW MUCH?!

July 08 2010 at 2:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Chris's comment
Jay Black

How dare you! I never sell my integrity. Why, reading your comment almost made me spit out my Fresca! And you know that means I _must_ be angry because I can't think of anything worse than the delicious taste of Fresca ever leaving my mouth! Ah, Fresca. Wait, what were we talking about?

July 09 2010 at 2:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


July 08 2010 at 1:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to csb1227's comment
Jay Black

Darn you and your "accurate" information. All ruinin' my style and what not.

(But, er, in all seriousness, my bad everyone. For whatever reason I trusted my brain to remember the stuff I had put in it. Just like the time I went out on the first word during the 5th grade spelling bee, my brain has let me down.)

July 09 2010 at 2:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Ahh...no biggie. It's less than a couple shiny Washingtons over a whole year.

July 09 2010 at 8:33 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Netflix already beat Hulu to this. It's $10 a month, the catalog might not be as large (although I think it might be), and even if you can't stream it, you can always get the DVD of anything mailed to you. I'm not enraged by Hulu wanting to show ads, I just don't see the point in using that service when a superior one exists for the same price.

July 08 2010 at 1:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to AMP's comment
Jay Black

My understanding of Netflix (and someone please correct me if I'm wrong) is that you can stream TV but it's usually only DVD boxed sets that have been released well after the season is over and done with. Great for catching up on seasons, but not all that great if you want to ditch the cable for a internet-only option.

(Not that Hulu Plus is cable-ditch-worthy just yet, but I think we're almost there...)

July 09 2010 at 1:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yes, Netflix does not have TV shows until they are released on DVD. And just like buying or renting the DVDs, you only get 3 or 4 episodes on each disk. I'm currently working my way through Season 2 of Chuck, and Season 3 of Army Wives. But I won't be able to get Season 3 of Chuck until just before Season 4 on TV, so then I'll either have to DVR and store episodes until I get caught up, or else wait until next summer (2011) to get Season 4. Hulu Plus would allow me to watch Season 3 over the summer and be caught up for Season 4.

July 09 2010 at 12:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Netflix is cheaper and doesn't have ads (not to mention you can access it now on a number of tv connected devices). I'm not sure about catalog size though.

July 08 2010 at 1:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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