Deeper Dive—Hulu’s ad-supported downloads were a tall order

What was delivered differed from what was promised. (Hulu)

Hulu leveled up this week when the streaming service finally added downloadable content for subscribers, something its competitors like Amazon and Netflix had done for years. But what was delivered differed from what was promised.

In May 2018, Hulu said that it would soon launch ad-supported downloadable content, letting users keep watching and advertisers keep reaching even when an internet connection wasn’t handy.

“Our launch of the industry’s first ad-supported downloadable content experience is yet another example of how Hulu is innovating viewer-first ad solutions to drive powerful results for brands” said Peter Naylor, senior vice president of advertising sales at Hulu, in a statement. “With downloadable content, we're offering brands more ways to connect with engaged viewers who love the experience of watching television, wherever they may be.”

Users waited, and waited, and waited; but the promise of downloads on Hulu didn’t materialize. Not until October 2019, nearly a year and half later, when Hulu finally rolled out downloads; except, only for subscribers to the $11.99-per-month, ad-free tier. That means most Hulu subscribers won’t get to use the feature unless they upgrade. The company earlier this year estimated that it has 82 million total viewers and that nearly 70% of those viewers are on Hulu’s $5.99-per-month ad-supported plan.

It makes sense that downloads are only available for Hulu’s ad-free tier. The offering is consistent to what other services are doing and it adds more value to Hulu’s more expensive plan. But we’re still left with the question of why the ad-supported downloads the company seemed so excited about last year never came to be.

As The Verge points out, Hulu’s numerous deals with different content owners possibly made it difficult to sort out the rights. According to Variety, Hulu had plans to roll out downloads back in 2017 but the feature got “back-burnered” as Hulu’s focus shifted toward its live streaming TV service.

Another reason that ad-supported downloads never materialized, though, could be that they’re just too complicated to make work.

Earlier this year I spoke with Penthera, a software company that has worked with companies including Showtime to enable downloads and has been working for years to finetune technology for refreshing ads within downloaded content.

Josh Pressnell, chief technical officer at Penthera, said his company’s solution essentially overcame the technical difficulties with ads in downloads but that business concerns remained. Hulu could have relied on just its own in-house inventory for the service but likely needed to include inventory from outside ad servers like Google and Comcast’s FreeWheel.

With a typical AVOD stream, the ad server supplies the correct inventory and then the platform knows within an hour or two if an ad impression landed. With downloaded ads, the general monetization viability of an ad clocks in around 72 hours, Pressnell said, and that timetable creates predicaments for ad sellers about whether to undersell or oversell a campaign while having to accept that some inventory may never be monetized.

With Hulu’s new download feature, users can download up to 25 titles across five different devices and will have up to 30 days to watch their downloaded content. A full month of availability pushes an ad in a piece of downloaded content well past the 72-hour monetization viability window.

Presnell also said there's the matter of getting accreditation from the Media Rating Council and that nobody has earned accreditation for offline ads yet. It's not necessarily required to sell offline ads, but buyers and agencies would likely feel a lot more confident knowing it’s there.

It’s possible that Hulu will still find a way to do ad-supported downloads. But CBS All Access, a streaming service with a hybrid AVOD/SVOD model like Hulu, also launched downloads only for its ad-free tier more than a year ago and hasn’t said anything yet about extending the feature to its ad-supported tier.

So, there’s a good chance that if neither CBS nor Hulu has been able to make ad-supported downloads work yet, consumers shouldn't expect to see the feature anytime soon.