Includes Hulu's on-demand library. Solid channel selection including local affiliates where available. Cloud-based DVR. Multiple streams allowed.
No Viacom networks or HBO. Limited availability on streaming media devices. No conventional program guide for browsing what's on.
- Bottom Line
Though still in beta, the addition of live TV to Hulu's existing streaming service makes it an even more powerful tool for cord cutters.
Hulu stands alongside Netflix and other top media streaming services as a major driver of the cord-cutting movement. Its library of on-demand video, including the latest episodes of many popular shows made available immediately after they air, has let users completely drop their cable or satellite TV service. It isn't a perfect solution on its own, and the ability to watch TV as it airs is still beloved by many, which is why live streaming TV services like Sling have popped up over the last few years. Hulu jumps into the fray with its own live TV service, a $39.99 monthly subscription that combines its on-demand library with live television. It's currently in beta, but already its value and the sheer amount of content available earns it our Editors' Choice for live streaming TV services.
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Channel Lineup and Subscriptions
A $39.99 monthly subscription covers all local, regional, and standard cable channels available in your market with support for up to two simultaneous streams, plus 50 hours of cloud-based DVR (similar to the DVR available on PlayStation Vue) and full access to Hulu's on-demand programming (the same you get with Hulu's standard $7.99 monthly membership with ads). You can make the on-demand service ad-free for another $4 per month, and add Showtime and all of its on-demand content for another $8 per month.
Larger households will want to consider either of Hulu's add-on packages. The Enhanced Cloud DVR package quadruples the available DVR storage to 200 hours, and the Unlimited Screens package lets you stream simultaneously to an unlimited number of devices in your home and up to three outside of your home. These packages are another $14.99 per month each, or can be bought together for $19.99.
Local and regional channels will depend on your market. In the New York City area, Hulu offers 60 channels between local affiliates and cable networks. Local TV includes ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC, along with YES (Yankees Entertainment and Sports) and MyNetworkTV. Entertainment cable networks include A&E, Boomerang, Bravo, Cartoon Network, Chiller, Disney, FX, Oxygen, Syfy, TBS, TNT, and USA. CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC cover the cable news field, along with CNBC, CNN International, FOX Business, and Headline News. Sports networks include CBS Sports, ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPN U, FS1, FS2, and NBCSN.
Viacom networks like Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Spike, and TV Land are notably absent, and the local CW affiliate also isn't available in the NYC market. The selection is similar to PlayStation Vue's $45 Core subscription tier, which shares similar holes in its lineup. DirecTV Now and Sling TV both include Viacom programming, and their $40-range tiers are otherwise similar to Hulu's in terms of selection (though Sling TV doesn't offer local affiliates). However, add-on packages for Sling and more expensive tiers for DirecTV Now feature far more channels than Hulu currently offers, including options for HBO, which Hulu doesn't offer at all.
The live TV feature is currently available on the Hulu apps for the fourth-generation Apple TV and Xbox One. You can also stream it to a Chromecast from your Android or iOS mobile device, and watch live TV directly from those devices as well.
That leaves a sizable number of media streamers that don't yet support live TV, including all Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices, though Hulu plans to expand to other devices in the future. We primarily tested the service using an Xbox One S connected to a TV and on an iPad Air 2.
Live and On-Demand
Hulu is first and foremost an on-demand streaming video service, and that aspect remains front and center in the Hulu With Live TV app. Opening the app takes you to a home screen with suggestions of what you might want to watch across both on-demand and live television, and individual networks and their current programming only appear when you navigate to the My Channels tab. This sequestration of live TV also happens under the My Stuff menu, where you need to flick right to hit the Networks and Manage DVR tabs; if you've added any favorite shows or movies to your profile and they're available from Hulu's on-demand library, they'll appear before live programing.
This isn't a knock against how live TV is integrated into Hulu, but more a demonstration of just how big Hulu's on-demand library is. I added a bunch of shows and movies to my account, and all but a small handful of them were available on demand from the standard Hulu subscription. It's worth noting my taste leans heavily toward animation, sci-fi, and general camp, and your favorite programming might be much more live-TV-only.
I was able to watch every episode of Gravity Falls, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, and Steven Universe (up to the most recent new episodes) right away through Hulu's on-demand library. Recent episodes of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are available on demand as soon as they air live. However, the latest episodes of The Rachel Maddow Show need to be watched live (or recorded live and stored in the cloud DVR).
The distinction between on-demand programming and DVR recordings isn't particularly clear unless you manually go to the Manage DVR tab in the app. You can browse your live TV recordings from this tab; otherwise all of your favorite shows and movies simply show up in the category menus throughout the app.
Watching Live TV Differently
Users looking for a conventional live TV experience will be disappointed, because the live TV is integrated so deeply with Hulu's on-demand library. There's no grid-based guide, like DirecTV Now and PlayStation Vue offer, and even flipping through channels to see what's on is generally organized through recommendations and preferences. Live TV is displayed generally in a single column or row that shows what's currently on different networks or what's coming up on the current network. This focus makes it difficult to find out what live programming is available.
The Details menu is the best way to surf channels once you're already viewing live TV. It brings up two different tabs that let you browse what's on and what's coming up. The first tab displays a row of live TV programming, prioritizing suggestions based on what you're currently watching. The second tab shows the upcoming programming for the current channel, so you can add any anything that will be on later to your DVR. It makes watching live TV a bit more organized, jumping from related programming to related programing instead of just going through a list of numbered, unfiltered channels.
Sports fans should be pleased, as you can follow your favorite teams in the MLB, MLS, NBA, NCAA, and NHL. By adding teams to your profile, the app will tell you exactly when the next game is, and let you watch previous games when available. This of course depends on which teams you follow and which market you live in.
Live TV comes through sharply, in HD for programming that supports it. I watched a Texas A&M football game on ESPN, The Amazing World of Gumball on Cartoon Network, and Friends on TBS, and all three streams showed up clearly and colorfully in seconds. I could even start the Gumball episode from the beginning. However, I couldn't do the same with the football game, and Friends was oddly selective in the parts of the episode I could go back to—like most live TV services, the availability of instant playback features is dependent on the network and programming.
A Powerful Cord-Cutting Tool
Hulu With Live TV is a fantastic upgrade for cord cutters who have relied on Hulu's on-demand library to keep up with their favorite shows. The addition of live channels and cloud-based DVR further fills in the gaps of what you can and can't watch, justifying the $40 subscription especially for sports fans, news fans, or anyone whose tastes can be found on cable but not in Hulu's on-demand catalog. The channel selection has some holes, particularly CW affiliates and Viacom networks, but it's still a strong lineup that should satisfy most users. Sling TV offers less expensive subscriptions, but it lacks both local programming and the massive on-demand library Hulu throws in. That makes Hulu With Live TV our Editors' Choice, even in beta.
By Will Greenwald Senior Analyst, Consumer Electronics
Will Greenwald has been covering consumer technology for a decade, and has served on the editorial staffs of CNET.com, Sound & Vision, and Maximum PC. His work and analysis has been seen in GamePro, Tested.com, Geek.com, and several other publications. He currently covers consumer electronics in the PC Labs as the in-house home entertainment expert, reviewing TVs, media hubs, speakers, headphones, and gaming accessories. Will is also an ISF Level II-certified TV calibrator, which ensures the thoroughness and accuracy of all PCMag TV reviews…. More »
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