Since its launch in March 2008, Hulu has had a great run -- and CEO Jason Kilar's star has just kept rising. (He was a top candidate for the Yahoo CEO job; in July he took himself out of the running for the gig that Marissa Mayer ultimately landed.) The streaming-video site has gotten a lot of credit for making its user interface nice and simple from the get-go, and Kilar and his team have wisely avoided the general tech-world tendency toward feature bloat and increased visual clutter. A clean, elegant site redesign this summer was implemented seamlessly, and only made the site even more of a pleasure to use.
So why am I feeling so frustrated about Hulu lately? And why am I not the only one?
Because, basically, the TV-network establishment can't seem to stop giving Hulu a hard time. And the summer and fall TV seasons have just underscored the problem, which results in a degraded experience for Hulu users.
When Louis C.K. took home a comedy-writing Emmy a few Sundays ago for "Louie" -- one of my favorite TV shows of all time, but one whose June-through-September third season I fell behind on watching -- I went to Hulu. I used to watch "Louie," an FX Network show, on Hulu, but I guess I can't anymore; this time I was greeted with a bunch of short promo clips and a terse brush-off: "Full episodes are not available at this time." Gah! (They're not even available on pay-service Hulu Plus .)
That's also the case with another of my all-time favorites, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" (in this case Hulu makes the blame clear: "FX is no longer making episodes available for streaming"). And yet FX does make some of its shows, like "Wilfred" (another gem!), available to Hulu, so you never know.
And consider Fox's "The X Factor." Last year, when I felt like I needed to watch at least a bit of it just to stay on top of the pop-cultural conversation, full episodes were right there on Hulu. This year I looked to Hulu the day after the season premiere (I hadn't thought to DVR it) to see just how train-wrecky Britney Spears was as a new judge and ... surprise! "Full episodes of the 'X Factor' are not available at this time." Keep in mind that Fox is not only a sibling network of FX, but their parent, News Corp., is one of the founding partners (along with NBC Universal and Disney-ABC) in the joint venture that is Hulu. Bad sign when your JV partners don't even want to play ball with you.
Some shows, like NBC's "Saturday Night Live," which have been on Hulu for years, are still reliably made available after broadcast -- but those prime-time "SNL Weekend Update Thursday" specials the show has been doing this fall? Yeah, not on Hulu. [UPDATE: Turns out those specials are on Hulu, but are just a bit buried -- below "SNL" clips and segments. Go here and scroll down five levels. FYI: If you want to watch them, act fast; the first special, for instance, is due to "expire" in five days, as of this writing (Oct. 9).]
There is , increasingly, no wit or wisdom to how the shows Hulu does have are made available. They might go live on Hulu the day after broadcast, or it might take weeks. Two high-profile shows, "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," we know remain on Hulu only because it was so desperate to bring them back (after Viacom pulled them in 2010) that Hulu paid a king's ransom: a reported $40 million for a two-year deal. And of course some of the most popular shows on TV, like CBS's "NCIS," have never been on Hulu. (CBS isn't part of the Hulu joint venture; you can watch "NCIS" on CBS.com.)
The end result of all this: an increasingly erratic and confusing consumer experience -- the opposite of what Hulu is supposed to offer. Just check the Hulu comments section and you'll see all sorts of evidence of rising frustration. Like this post from Erim Foster, a wannabe viewer of "Louie": "So, is season three even going to be available on Hulu? Or, is Hulu ever going to let us know one way or another? This is incredibly shoddy customer service. Just a heads up FX... if you don't show it on Hulu, I will just pirate if off bit torrent, and you'll get nothing. Step into the twenty first century."
But maybe those (like me) who aren't paying anything for Hulu should just shut the hell up, because it's free, right? Well, sure, you could argue that , but the problem is that Hulu's branding and messaging have always essentially been about offering an all-you-can-eat buffet of your favorite shows. And Hulu started out entirely free.
Now, to fill in the holes caused by networks jerking it around, Hulu keeps investing in more and more original content (just like YouTube and other big players in the online video space). For instance, it recently greenlit "The Awesomes," an animated superhero comedy created by "SNL" head writer Seth Meyers. (I'll totally watch that .) And there's plenty of entertaining original content already on Hulu, like Larry King's new talk show, "Larry King Now," which is more fun than his old CNN show because the guests are allowed to swear.
And maybe Nielsen's announcement last week of its new Cross-Platform Campaign Ratings , which are meant to unify TV and web-streaming metrics, will persuade some withholding networks to be less withholding.
But in the meantime, commenter Erim Foster is right about the customer-service experience. (Foster's comment remains unanswered by Hulu, though another commenter responded by suggesting that those who mention torrenting TV shows will be "investigated by the copyright enforcement agencies lol.") Hulu says its mission is "to help you find and enjoy the world's premium content when, where and how you want it." When people expect what's been promised and they find an increasingly Swiss-cheesy service, they get cranky.
I still love a lot about you, Hulu, but there's no getting around that harsh reality.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
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