A Closer Look at Hulu’s Upcoming Relaunch: New App Design Still Puts On-Demand First

Courtesy of Hulu

Here’s something you won’t see when firing up Hulu’s revamped apps, which the company is set to launch in the coming months in conjunction with its new live TV service: a live TV feed. Instead, Hulu is going to always start you off with a stylish home screen with a personalized launch menu the company is calling “lineup.”

This lineup may include things that are currently playing on television, but could also be dominated by Hulu’s streaming exclusives or on-demand fare from participating networks, depending on your set preferences and past viewing behavior. There’s also no traditional grid guide, and you won’t be able to flip through channels like you might with a cable remote.

That’s because, at it’s core, Hulu still defines itself as a video subscription service — only one that now also offers access to live TV. “It’s a very familiar experience for SVOD users,” said Hulu VP of Product Richard Irving while demonstrating the new experience to Variety at CES in Las Vegas last week. “We want this to be great for SVOD and live as well.”

Part of that is a pragmatic decision. Hulu plans to offer consumers access to live TV for less than $40 later this year, but the company will also continue to offer its existing ad-supported and ad-free on demand subscription plans, which don’t come with live network feeds. Having the app launch into a live feed under one plan while doing something else under another seemed like a disjointed experience.

But Hulu also decided that it wanted to build its new TV service for its existing users first. 75 percent of these users currently have a pay TV subscription, Irving said, while 80 percent subscribe to two or more video services — all good signs that these users value the features of online video, but depend on things like sports, big marquee events or live news, which keeps them tied to their TV subscription as well.

So what will Hulu’s users get when the new apps roll out? A surprisingly clean interface that looks very different from Hulu’s current TV app iterations. Profiles, which Hulu first introduced to a subset of its users in December, will be key to the experience, with each account allowing users to create up to six such profiles.

Every profile will feature its own lineup — a list of six to ten favorites or recently-watched shows. There will also be a section with favorite shows, recent DVR recordings and such that looks a bit more like the existing Hulu app, albeit presented with a much lighter interface. Users will also be able to browse Hulu’s catalog by genre, network and more.

A separate TV guide-like section shows what’s currently playing on a user’s favorite networks — albeit still without the grid view that’s so common on cable boxes. Instead, Hulu offers users detailed search and discovery based on technology that the company got its hands on when it acquired the Video Genome Project late last year. Irving demonstrated that this for example makes it possible to find “kung fu movies with knife fights.”

The closest that the new Hulu gets to a traditional TV service is when you actually watch any live TV feed. That’s when users can access a flip tray overlay in the bottom of the screen to check what’s currently playing on other networks. That’s very similar to the way Sling TV offers channel flipping, or to modern cable or smart TV user interfaces, for that matter.

Hulu hasn’t said yet when exactly it is going to launch these new apps and its live TV service, and many details are still to be determined. This includes the cloud DVR, which will allow users that subscribe to the live TV tier to record shows. “We haven’t finalized the amount of storage just yet,” said Irving.

(Hulu will be testing the new apps as part of an invite-only beta test; consumers can apply here to take part in the test, but have to be willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement to do so.)

He also acknowledged that Hulu live TV users will likely be subject to the same blackouts and restrictions that currently prevent subscribers of Sling TV and other paid services from accessing some content on some devices. NFL games, for example, are not available on mobile devices. And when NBC broadcasted the Golden Globes earlier this week, it wasn’t able to stream the awards show on any of these services due to contractual restrictions. “That’s a problem that only time can solve,” Irving said.

The bigger question may just be whether Hulu’s approach to lead with subscription video will pay off. On the surface, it makes a lot of sense to make a TV service look more like a Netflix-like video service, especially at a time when Netflix continues to grow and pay TV continues to decline. But Hulu’s existing proposition costs consumers as little as $8 a month. The company’s new live TV plan will cost $40 for a base package, and more if you add premium channels.

Consumers may just ask themselves whether it’s worth paying five times as much for a service that doesn’t look that much different from the much cheaper plan.