As I’ve mentioned more than once, a lot of my movie viewing comes from streaming sites, particularly Hulu. However, until last night, it had been a few weeks since I had last used Hulu. There wasn’t any particular reason for this, other than just viewing movies from DVDs, Amazon, DishAnywhere, and so on. But now I’m wondering if maybe my Hulu-viewing is going to drop off a bit more.
The problem is the ads. Hulu has always been ad-sponsored, and I’ve been willing to accept that as the cost of an otherwise free service. But lately it’s started to feel pretty onerous.
When I made my list of Top 10 irritations of watching films on TV, I mentioned the length and frequency of ads as being one of the chief irritations. Hulu was historically fairly good on this front. Early on, it would just be a single 30-second ad about six or seven times during a film. Then it was two ads. This past year they started with three. And as I was watching my movie last night, it was four per commercial break. Sometimes there are as many as a dozen breaks as well.
At the time I wrote the abovementioned list, I said that a break of 2½ minutes was acceptable. But this was in comparison to the ten-minute commercial breaks on basic cable, which I haven’t actually used for a year or two. The breaks in last night’s Hulu watching was verging on that length… and honestly, it didn’t feel all that acceptable. I mean, it’s a decent enough length for me to just ignore it and go the bathroom or something, but I don’t need to go to the bathroom eight times a movie, and at any rate, there’s always the pause button on Hulu.
These breaks are often lengthened by poor buffering on the commercials. I’m on a basic DSL connection, I can’t stream 720p. That’s why I have my Hulu preferences set to 480p. But it only obeys that for the film; with commercials, it’s often trying to stream 720p anyway. Which means that the Geico money guy stays on screen for two or three minutes instead of 30 seconds as the commercial stutters its way along.
But it occurred to me that a bigger problem than the length is simply the break itself. A break away from the film breaks suspension of disbelief for the film; it’s automatically an inferior film experience than it otherwise would be. I was watching a horror movie last night, so it was something of a bigger deal for that than say, for a comedy, but it hurts any type of film. It’s one of the nicer things about using DishAnywhere for viewing movies, even despite their poor choice to use variable-bitrate streaming instead of allowing me to choose a specific bitrate to buffer and stream at. The absence of commercials (since I’m getting it as part of an existing Dish subscription) means that the immersion of the film is kept intact.
But Hulu needs their ads. Even Hulu Plus is partially ad-supported according to the site’s FAQ. I understand that, I really do. Content costs money. Bandwidth costs money. And a fully-commercial-free option might involve a higher subscription payment than most people are wanting to pay. (Though maybe not; I don’t know how Netflix gets by. Do they have ads on their streaming service?)
But even if Hulu needs their ads… that doesn’t mean they have to be done this way, does it? About midway through my movie, a wondrous thing happened. Hulu has their ads come up essentially at random (as far as I’ve been able to determine; ad tailor aims to make them semi-targetted, but it’s fairly limited). And midway through, I got an offer: Watch this 2½-minute trailer (for Insidious 2, incidentally) and the rest of the movie will be commercial free. Since there were five commercial breaks left, counting that one, and most of them so far had been two minutes anyway, this seemed like a terrific bargain to me. I watched the trailer, I went back to my movie, and it was considerably easier to buy into it without the constant interruptions (though it did oddly still fade out and in when the commercials were supposed to hit; I presume this is a software issue that can and should be addressed.)
That seems like a terrific option for somebody like me who is bothered by interruptions to their movie. The only downside to it was that it was in the middle of the movie, and not the beginning. Perhaps it just didn’t get selected until then by random chance, perhaps it’s because Hulu wanted to get some ad money from other sponsors first. I don’t know. But I would love to simply front-load all of my commercials and then watch my movie without interruption.
Maybe Hulu can’t make enough money if they just do that with a single trailer. I don’t know. But that’s OK. Pile on a few more if need be, I’m not objecting. Let me be perfectly clear about this: I am 100% OK with the idea of sitting through ten minutes of commercials ahead of my movie if it means that my movie will play without interruption. I will go along with that every single time, especially if those ads are things like movie trailers, which I’m going to be interested in checking out anyway. I do that at the movie theatre, and I pay for that. If I can watch a bunch of ads I genuinely find interesting and then watch a movie in peace, I will be happy. And so will Hulu’s advertisers: They’ll have somebody directly targeted for their ads who will be paying attention to them and will not resent their company for the intrusion of the ad, because in this situation it won’t be an intrusion. (‘Cause I’ve got to tell you: as it is, I’m not feeling kindly disposed to Capital One.)
After I was done watching the movie, I went to my account settings and searched for the ad settings hoping that I would find something already in place to make it give that trailer-or-ads offer all the time. There wasn’t, of course. But there needs to be. Hulu may need the ads, but they can’t let the ads hurt the viewers’ enjoyment of the service; it defeats the whole purpose. Let viewers have a single account-wide setting to have a “normal” commercial viewing experience, or to have a selection of front-loaded advertisements. And while doing that, let viewers select what types of commercials to see in the process. They’ve got no chance of selling car insurance to me — I’m happy with what I’ve got, thanks — so an ad like that is an irritation to me and a waste to them. But I find food commercials pleasant and can sometimes be swayed by them; computer commercials are informative and will be useful to me at some point as I look to upgrade; and I actively enjoy commercials about movies. It would be nice to be able to select “Food”, “Tech”, “Movies” as categories of ads to watch, and “Car Insurance”, “Credit Cards”, and “Sex Aids” as categories to ignore, if I so choose.
Hulu’s been touting this “Ad Tailor” of theirs in the header space above ads for a few years now, but so far all I’ve seen is that is that it occasionally lets you swap an ad as it happens, and it lets you say whether a commercial is “relevant” to you (and then ignores your response, in my experience). How about letting the user actually tailor their ad experience? It’ll make both the user and the advertisers happier in the long run.