Hulu to End Free TV Service

Hulu's Upfront Presentation on April 30, 2014 in New York City-Getty- H 2016
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Hulu

The streamer's free TV library will live on online via a new distribution partnership with Yahoo.

Hulu is saying goodbye to free TV. 

The streaming service is taking steps to shutter its offering of no-cost, ad-supported television and movies, a core product of Hulu since it launched nearly nine years ago. Hulu will begin notifying customers of the change over the next few days, and members who have been using the free service will be offered free trials of a paid subscription.

Hulu launched in 2007 with a library of free TV shows and clips, a move considered revolutionary at a time when there was little traditional-length video on the internet. But the company — which is jointly owned by Walt Disney, 21st Century Fox, NBCUniversal and recent minority shareholder Time Warner — has evolved considerably over the years as the streaming landscape has become increasingly competitive led by behemoth Netflix. First, Hulu launched a subscription tier with limited advertising in 2010, then last fall it went ad-free with a higher-priced subscription tier, and it is now prepping the launch of a live TV service next year. Hulu currently has 12 million subscribers. 

Meanwhile, its free service has become a low trafficked product. That could be because Hulu has de-emphasized its free content. Navigating to the homepage without logging in currently redirects to a page that encourages people to sign up for a free trial. It takes significant work to find the free videos available behind that landing page, though they are available. 

"For the past couple years, we've been focused on building a subscription service that provides the deepest, most personalized content experience possible to our viewers," says Ben Smith, Hulu senior vp and head of experience. "As we have continued to enhance that offering with new originals, exclusive acquisitions and movies, the free service became very limited and no longer aligned with the Hulu experience or content strategy." 

Most of Hulu's free content has been fairly limited, restricted to what's known as the "rolling five," or the five most recent episodes of a current show — content that typically becomes available eight days after it airs and is usually also available for free on broadcast networks' websites. For example, recent episodes of shows like America's Got Talent, South Park and Brooklyn Nine-Nine are currently available for free, while Hulu's slate of originals and high-profile exclusives remain behind the paywall

But fans of Hulu's free TV service shouldn't worry too much. The company will continue to offer its library of no-cost content via its distribution partners, which include Comcast. Hulu has, in fact, struck an expanded distribution deal with Yahoo for the launch of streaming TV hub Yahoo View. 

Yahoo is launching the TV site a half-year after shuttering Yahoo Screen, the video service that offered up ad-supported episodes of original TV shows like Community, live-streaming concerts and other clips. With View, however, Yahoo is focusing specifically on providing a destination for television to its audience, many of whom are still driven to Yahoo products via its highly trafficked homepage. 

The internet company's execs say that View, which launches using Hulu's video player and running ads sold by Hulu's sales team, offers thousands of episodes of traditional television, including the last five episodes of shows eight days after they air on ABC, NBC and Fox. As with most of Hulu's distribution partners, the two companies will share in the revenue from Hulu's ad sales. 

"We're trying to get the best digital content in front of our users," says Yahoo vp and head of media partnerships Phil Lynch, adding that the strategy for View is very different than that of Screen and its focus on clips and other mostly short-form videos. "This is Hulu content. We are the eyeballs and the distribution platform." 

View also will serve as a hub focused on the fandoms that emerge around various TV shows by featuring added content like clips, recaps and Tumblr-generated GIFs. "It's an amazing place for fans to connect and engage," says Jess Lee, Yahoo's vp of lifestyles products. "We've never had this stand-alone community destination."