Monday, January 21, 2013

Thrift Week Day Five: Hulu

I've never actually subscribed to cable TV. Back when Brian and I first moved in together, we did have a $7-a-month "basic broadcast" subscription, which only gave us access to the network shows that we theoretically should have been able to get for free with an antenna, but couldn't actually pick up with our little set of rabbit ears. Within a couple of years, however, we dropped that service too. Yet we've never felt deprived as far as visual entertainment is concerned, thanks to two very handy tools:
  • Our high-speed Internet connection. This isn't cheap—Cablevision, which is the only provider available in our area, just raised our rates from $50 to $55 a month—but it's a necessary expense with me working from home, so we might as well do our best to get our money's worth out of it. 
  • Our media spud, the little computer that Brian built specifically to get TV shows over the Internet. (At the time, this device, which cost us less than $350 in parts, was the most cost-effective way for us to get the speed and video quality we needed without paying for a lot of extra functionality we'd never use. Nowadays, with more people choosing to drop cable and do their TV watching online, there are lots of cheaper options, like the $50 Roku or the the $100 Boxee and Apple TV.)
With this setup, we can watch anything that can be found on the Internet—and nowadays, that's a lot. We watch Project Runway through MyLifetime.com, Downton Abbey on PBS.org, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on ComedyCentral.com, and QI—which still isn't available to a US audience through any legal means—by downloading it at The Pirate Bay. (NOTE: Fans of the show who want to see it shown on American TV can sign a petition here.) However, the most versatile site in our TV toolbox is Hulu.com. Through this site, we watched the entire run of "Stargate Universe" with barely a delay from the time when it first aired on SyFy. We've watched episodes of old shows I'd never seen before, like "Quincy, M.E.," "Simon & Simon," and "Hill Street Blues." We've also used it to learn about potentially interesting newer shows, like "Misfits" and "Whites." (We didn't become regular followers of either one, but it was nice to have the change to check them out without paying up front for the privilege.)

When we're in the mood for a particular type of show, we can use Hulu's categories to find something interesting. Recently, for instance, I had a hankering for a good murder mystery, and we'd already watched all the Poirots and Miss Marples in our library's DVD collection. A search on Hulu for "mystery" uncovered the entire first (and only) season of "Ellery Queen," starring the late Jim Hutton. This turns out to be a really good show, with intriguing stories and an appealing sleuth (he's a much more fully developed character here than in the books on which the series is based), and if it hadn't been for Hulu, I probably never would have seen it. I was too young to watch the show when it first aired in the '70s, so I'd never even heard of it until it popped up on Hulu's search screen.

And this is only the stuff that's available on the main (free) Hulu site. For 8 bucks a month—a fraction of the $35 a month we'd have to pay to upgrade our high-speed Internet to the cheapest Internet-plus-cable package—we could upgrade to Hulu Plus and get access to additional shows and a large collection of movies. However, with all the stuff that there is to see just on the free Hulu site and the various other sites we use, we've never felt the need to try it. (We have signed up for free trials of both Netflix and Blockbuster by Mail, and we found in both cases that there was nothing there worth paying $8 to $10 a month for when there are so many good shows available online for free.)

Now, Hulu.com isn't the only site we use to watch TV online, so it doesn't singlehandedly save us the cost of a cable subscription. But I think it's fair to say that if it weren't for Hulu and its copycat sites, which offer a wide variety of shows to watch in a single place, we would have found it much more difficult—maybe even not worth the effort—to get by without cable and the $420 a year it would cost us. So I think that this site deserves a spot in the Thrift Week lineup of sites no ecofrugal person can do without. (Well, unless you're so ecofrugal that you don't have a TV at all in your super-efficient, off-the-grid house, in which case, that's great for you, but please don't lecture me about it.)
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