By Chris Brass
Hulu has been in the streaming game for 10 years yet has never led the way as Netflix and Amazon have dominated the market. What would it take for Hulu to become the most popular streaming service?
Hulu’s on-demand service is by far the most popular go-to for cord cutting. But Netflix is by far the most popular service with almost three times as many customers, and while Amazon prime can boast more customers than Hulu by several million subscribers. The thing is that not all Netflix customers are cord cutters and I believe many use this as a supplement to their cable service. Amazon Prime, on the other hand, is a shipping service for Amazon customers so it’s really unclear how many individuals or families subscribe to Amazon for their video service, Amazon’s VOD service is touted as a perk for Prime members.
Hulu, by comparison, is the first service that most cord cutters go to once they get rid of cable and satellite service. Most cable services offer network VOD right through the cable box, missed last nights episode of The Late Show? No problem, go to the VOD service your cable network offers, choose CBS and you can see all of last nights programs available for you to watch. While it’s feasible that your average cable or satellite subscriber has a subscription to Hulu for its movies, I compare it to men who only subscribe to Playboy for the articles. Yes, there are a few out there, but not very many.
So what is holding Hulu back from taking the top streaming service? Hulu is. Here are a few observations that I believe prevents Hulu from taking the top spot as a streaming service.
1. Not quite as binge-friendly as other services:
One of my observations of Hulu is that it does not seem to take the idea of binge-watching very seriously, far too many of the classic TV shows available are actually binge-worthy, but in many cases, there are only one or two seasons available. For instance, WKRP in Cincinnati has been available on Hulu since the service launched, but there
is only one season out of 4 available. The Mary Tyler Moore Show is another example, I would love to see “Chuckles Bites the Dust”, one of the show’s most popular episodes, but it has never been available because Hulu only has the first three seasons. I can’t help but wonder why some additional seasons of older programs have not made their way to Hulu. If Mary Tyler Moore or WKRP aren’t being watched, why are they still there? All they are doing is taking up valuable space on the server. If they are being watched, why doesn’t Hulu appear to be expanding the library and making more episodes available? Did Hulu load them up on their server’s some 10 years ago and simply forget that they were there? Are older programs binge-worthy? Of course they are. They may not be as popular as say, Arrow/Flash on Netflix. Perhaps not quite as binge-worthy as watching House back to back, but my brother-in-law decided to binge the old 70’s TV show Emergency and got both his teenaged boy and 5-year-old daughter to join in the binge session. Now both kids routinely watch it on Netflix, simply because their dad used to watch it in syndication when he was their age. This is also true for many currently airing TV shows.
2. A Thirty Day Billing Cycle:
While this may seem minor, this is one of those things where I’m always scratching my head. Seriously Hulu? I paid you on the first of December and I’m getting billed again on the 31st? I know why they do it, it gives them an extra billing cycle every couple of years as opposed to the “we’re going to bill you once a month”. Don’t give me that “But you’ll always get February free nonsense, it won’t wash. Do the math, they do it because it gives them more payments. I would much rather pay an extra dollar and get billed 12 times a year, not 13.
3. The New Interface:
I’m not a huge fan of the new user interface and from what I’ve gathered, I’m not the only one. The older interface was much more intuitive and I find myself using Hulu on my Mi Box more often than on my Roku because it has the older version on it. While I love having multiple profiles, can we just please have a “Profile page” that you go to when you first select Hulu in much the same way that Netflix has? It doesn’t really need to be all that elaborate, just mimic Netflix. Have a few simple avatars, allow yourself the ability to create a username and once you select it, you’re done. To be honest, half of the fun of my Netflix account is going in and changing the usernames and pictures of the other profiles. One individual seems to like to replace my “robot” avatar with the smiling girl face while changing my name to “Town Idiot” or… other colorful names. Once you enter Netflix it’s no longer relevant. This new interface is clunky, often taking more steps to get you to a screen then the previous version did, nor does it feel quite as natural and intuitive as the older version does.
4. Limited Number of Devices at Once:
I get it, Hulu isn’t as liberal as Netflix on the “can you share access” mentality, but having only one or two devices at the same time seems rather “Imperialistic”. I half expect Darth Vader to come through my front door when I attempt to log onto Hulu and get the “you currently have too many devices watching” message. If you’re that concerned about sharing access, do everyone a favor and just restrict it to the same IP address. I have no desire to watch “Doc McStuffins” with my 5-year-old niece and it kind of torques me off that her watching it on the iPad prevents me from watching Battlestar Galactica on the TV. They need to make a decision here. Lighten up on sharing and adopt a
“Netflix like” attitude, or have the service locked into a specific internet address save for a few devices outside the home at one time. This is what cable companies do with their apps. The policy is likely to prevent password sharing, yet password sharing may be more helpful than hurtful to streaming companies. I went nearly a year not watching Netflix and when debating on if I should cancel the service I decided not to because a family member had access to my account. Netflix has made no secret that this is a reason why they don’t object to it, and I can assure you from personal experience that this is indeed true.
5. It can’t figure out advertising:
I honestly believe that this is the one thing that is holding Hulu back from becoming the number one streaming service. For the on-demand service, they have two choices, the ‘budget minded’ limited advertising option $7.99 after promotional pricing ends or the “ad free” service for $11.99 In a CNBC article from May 2017 CEO Mike Hopkins lets it be known that half of its revenue comes from advertising. According to the article, Hulu has 47 million subscribers, with 33 million who have a subscription plan that has them watching advertising. I think that Hulu needs to decide if they are going after advertising dollars or if they are going to go after subscription dollars because going after both is holding them back from becoming more popular and it may even hurt them in the long run.
Go Only Ad-Free
Why not go the same route as Netflix and Amazon. Become exclusively a subscription-based service which is devoid of advertisements. While this undoubtedly has some challenges, such as the potential to lose a significant portion of its revenue from those paying for advertising, I believe that Hulu is going to need to face that concern head-on anyway. And it might benefit to do it sooner than later. Having all of the options gets confusing and hurts how the service is talked about by media and even just streaming enthusiasts in forums and Facebook because what people say about it can easily turn out inaccurate or be misconstrued. If Hulu decides to go after the subscription revenue, it could very easily be a setback financially, but I suspect that it would be a short-term loss especially if it offers a price drop. Touting itself as an ad-free service that offers top movies and the latest network TV shows would give it some great appeal. Also, people are more inclined to pay a fair price for on-demand services free of advertising. While I could say record tonight’s “Lethal Weapon” with my Plex Server for free and just fast forward through the
commercials an hour later, that still doesn’t change that Hulu has a huge selection of material to choose from. Plus its easier to just open an app and watch than setting up a server on a computer, hooking up a TV tuner card and linking it to a separate app. Being able to watch something like Lethal Weapon free of advertisements simply makes it the icing on the cake. OR………
Make It Free
If Mr. Hopkins numbers are accurate and 33 million of Hulu’s subscribers are watching advertising then why not make Hulu a free ad-supported service, like it was when it launched via its website. Those 33 million subscribers will surely continue to watch just as much as they did before while paying the $8 a month. Hulu might even be able to squeeze in one or two more ads per program to make up for the lost subscription revenue and the general public will be none the wiser for it. I think that Hulu is going to become stagnant here in the near future concerning growth because it’s becoming less and less relevant. One of the biggest sales points for Hulu is that you can watch ABC’s primetime programming being broadcast tonight, tomorrow morning on Hulu, but if I’m willing to wait a week I can get it from ABC’s Roku channel as well, with advertising, without paying a dime. With the majority of Hulu’s popular programming being broadcast over the air for free, the antenna market is now a serious threat, not only to cable but to Hulu.
If they are worried about permanently losing those millions of subscribers who were paying for the ad-free service I believe that those would be more than replaced by the people who would begin watching because they can access it for free. Going after advertising revenue, I believe, would instantly catapult Hulu as the number one streaming service in the United States. Millions of individuals who have streaming devices, but feel no need to pay a monthly subscription to Hulu, would instantly go to it and see material that they might otherwise not have seen. I believe that it would put Hulu into a position where it could easily justify asking for even higher advertising prices. Dropping subscriptions in favor of advertising revenue may bring many more viewers to Hulu that it currently does not have. They would then be put into a position dominate over Netflix in revenue. It could become a real force to reckon with.