The last couple of months have seen group streaming explode in popularity, and Hulu joined the party this week.
The Disney-owned streaming service launched Watch Party on Thursday, giving users a way to watch Hulu programming together while chatting about it. The good news is Watch Party works. The bad news is it needs a little more time to grow.
What you need
At launch, Hulu Watch Party limits its audience right away by being exclusive to people with an ad-free Hulu account. That costs $11.99 per month, which is twice as much as the ad-supported $5.99 option that we can pretty safely assume more people use. In fact, we don’t have to assume at all; Hulu reported that about 70 percent of its users were on the ad-supported plan last year.
Let me be very clear: Every person in a Watch Party needs an ad-free account. Not just the host. Everyone. The good news is multiple people can share an ad-free login and chat using different user profiles, but if Hulu’s two-simultaneous-streams-per-account rule holds true here, you need to be careful about doing that.
If you do have an ad-free account, you need to log into it on Hulu.com on a web browser. Watch Party is not currently accessible via any Hulu apps on other devices. That could change in the future, but at the time of writing, you’ll need to be on a laptop or desktop computer to use this feature.
What you can watch
Hulu’s decision to lock Watch Party behind a more expensive service tier at launch isn’t surprising. When eligible users log into Hulu.com, they receive a prompt telling them that Hulu is “testing” a new feature. It makes sense to find out if Watch Party works at all before opening the floodgates to every Hulu subscriber.
The more disappointing limitation with Watch Party is that you can’t watch literally everything Hulu has to offer. Hulu told Mashable that “thousands” of titles support Watch Party, and after browsing the site for a while, there isn’t a lack of great content to watch with friends. It only took a few minutes of scrolling through the home screen to find What We Do in the Shadows, Blazing Saddles, and Parasite, which are all good and beloved films I’d gladly watch with my pals.
As far as I can tell, it mostly becomes problematic when you start dealing with content from add-on subscriptions. I have access to an ad-free Hulu account with an HBO subscription. Any movie or TV show that feeds into Hulu through that HBO subscription is ineligible for Watch Party. That makes sense, but it’s still a bit of a bummer to click on something I’d love to check out with friends only to find that it doesn’t work. That said, for HBO content in particular, there’s another solution in Scener. It’s a group streaming Chrome extension with an official partnership with HBO and it works very well.
Still, as long as something is on Hulu itself without any additional subscriptions, it seems like you can most likely use Watch Party with it. The biggest problem is that you have to click through to a title’s “Details” page to find out one way or another. It isn’t clear from the home screen, which is a major UI oversight. It’s the single biggest usability problem with Hulu Watch Party, and I hope that is changed soon.
How it works
Once you’ve got a compatible show or movie in mind, Watch Party is a breeze to use, probably because there isn’t much to it. There’s no need to install a Chrome extension or app here. It’s all in the website, which is a huge point in Watch Party’s favor.
The first thing Watch Party does is tell you to invite no more than seven friends using a URL. The seven-person limit feels small, especially considering chat is relegated to text-only right now. Scener, on the other hand, allows video and voice chat with a room limit of 20. Anyway, once everyone is in the room, you hit play and it works pretty intuitively from there.
The biggest complaint I can come up with regarding playback is that there isn’t a way to universally pause the video. I haven’t gotten a chance to test Watch Party with a large group yet, but when I paused Parasite while watching with a friend, it didn’t pause the movie on their end.
What it did do, however, is pretty clever. If you’re out of sync with another viewer who is further ahead, Watch Party automatically prompts you to sync up with them. Clicking that button will pause your video for a few seconds before bringing you right up to speed with everyone else. I wish there was a universal pause option as a last resort, but the alternative in place is absolutely something competing apps should emulate.
Hulu Watch Party feels like it’s still in its infant stage, and judging by that testing prompt eligible users get, that appears to be the case. Everything I’ve criticized is almost certainly subject to change. As it is right now, though, Hulu Watch Party is a neat addition to the service with one very good idea about how to handle desynchronization during playback. However, Its limitations on access in this early stage are too harsh to ignore. Hulu needs to find a way to give it to all subscribers. On top of that, the experience needs to be the same for everyone.
Until that happens, Hulu Watch Party is merely theoretical to most users, regardless of how well it works for those who have access to it. That makes it pretty tough for me to get excited about it at this juncture.