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Hulu has overtaken Netflix to become the best streaming service

The addition of the ad-free option has made it a TV and film obsessive's dream.

Hulu picked up The Mindy Project (starring Mindy Kaling), added the option to watch without ads, and leapfrogged past Netflix into the pole position in the streaming race.
Hulu picked up The Mindy Project (starring Mindy Kaling), added the option to watch without ads, and leapfrogged past Netflix into the pole position in the streaming race.
Photo by Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If you can only afford a subscription to one streaming service right now, it should be Hulu without ads. It's the best one going.

Netflix, the long-running champion, has the hype, and Amazon Prime has the massive amounts of cash necessary to mount a challenge to Netflix. But Hulu has what really counts: programming. I subscribe to all three and spend far, far more time watching Hulu than the other two. It's turned itself into a service for true TV and film obsessives.

Let's take a look at what I mean.

Hulu's list of TV series to watch is second to none

Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo.
Fargo is just one of many shows exclusively available on Hulu.

Here's the thing about Netflix's TV library: It's not terribly deep. Certainly, the service has the benefit of some of the best shows in TV history, like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Louie. But if you've already seen the shows the service has had on offer — for years now! — then you're likely scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Where Netflix is struggling is in adding new acquired shows to the list of series it already has. Yes, its partnerships with AMC and The CW have added exciting new programs like Better Call Saul, The Flash, and Jane the Virgin to its library in recent months. But more and more TV programmers seem to be trying to make deals with other services, in order to level the playing field a bit.

FX president John Landgraf even went on the record about this at this summer's Television Critics Association press tour.

"We had a concerted effort not to only sell to Netflix," he said. "Ultimately, we sold Justified and The Americans to Amazon, and now we’ve made an output deal with Hulu." And indeed, FX sold some of its series to Netflix in the past, but it hasn't since Louie, which debuted in 2010.

For a time, it seemed like this shift would be to Amazon's benefit. That service scooped up exclusive deals for shows like Orphan Black and Hannibal, in addition to the FX series Landgraf mentioned and a good chunk of HBO's back catalog. But in recent months, the momentum has swung toward Hulu, which has acquired show after show after show, and every one among the best TV has to offer.

I first noticed this while updating my list of the best 18 shows currently airing on TV every week. Each week, I would go searching for streaming options for these programs, and discover that Hulu had the rights to earlier seasons. Empire. The Last Man on Earth. Brooklyn Nine-Nine. You're the Worst. Fargo. Manhattan. Essentially anything on Comedy Central and Cartoon Network.

If it's debuted in the last three years or so, it's far likelier to have an exclusive deal with Hulu than with Netflix. And if you're someone who's reasonably up to date with recent classics (as I am), that makes Hulu a much more attractive option.

But wait, as they say, there's more.

Hulu still offers something no other streaming service has

Want to watch the latest episode of Empire? You're going to have to watch it on Hulu.

If you subscribe to Hulu, you can watch brand new episodes of TV shows from four of the five major broadcast networks the day after they originally air, to say nothing of many cable networks. You can also do this on Amazon, but you have to pay a per-episode fee for the privilege. Because Hulu is owned in a joint venture between ABC, NBC, and Fox, watching the episode is rolled into your subscription fee.

Yes, it's a huge headache how the various networks handle availability. Fox generally makes all episodes of a current season available, while ABC seems content with only a handful. And CBS, the biggest broadcast network, keeps its own shows segregated into its own streaming service (though its sister networks, The CW and Showtime, both have Hulu deals).

But this is not something Netflix or Amazon offers. Really, the only comparable services are those offered by various cable networks, like HBO Go or FX Now. And both of those feature only that network's content and are tied directly to your cable subscription. Hulu is limited by what networks and studios will allow it to do, but it's the closest anybody's yet come to putting all of last night's TV in one convenient place.

Hulu's library of classic and foreign TV is also second to none

The terrific British sitcom Rev. is available on Hulu and Hulu only.

Netflix has gotten lots of attention in recent years for its overseas imports, shows like Black Mirror, Peaky Blinders, and Witnesses. And those are all terrific shows, well worth watching if you haven't yet gotten to them on your Netflix crawl.

But Hulu, thanks to partnerships with other providers like DramaFever, bests Netflix in this arena as well. It has massive amounts of content from overseas, including a bunch of unheralded classics, like Rev., a British sitcom about an inner-city pastor, and Braquo, a dark French cop drama. And that's to say nothing of the massive amounts of foreign-language dramas DramaFever brings to the site. Honestly, in this regard, Hulu may offer too many options, which could be why it seems to downplay this side of itself.

Finally, Hulu is your best option for classic TV shows, too — and I don't mean recent classics. I mean classic classics. Sure, there are plenty of shows that are on essentially all of the major streaming services, like Cheers, but thanks to its connection with Shout! Factory, Hulu has some gems that nobody else does, like shows from MTM Productions (Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, etc.) and Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Netflix still has advantages in a few areas — but the gap is closing

Casual is the latest original series from Hulu.

Netflix and Amazon continue to lead Hulu in original programming. Netflix's slate is easily the best of any streaming service, boasting great shows like Orange Is the New Black, BoJack Horseman, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Amazon has struggled a bit more but still has Transparent and the promising new sci-fi series The Man in the High Castle.

Hulu, meanwhile, is just getting started in earnest. Though it's aired Hulu originals since 2012, it's often felt as if the site didn't make those shows its highest priority. That's changing now, however. The site's acquisition of The Mindy Project after Fox canceled it is by far its highest-profile original series yet, and it's poured significant resources into promoting its two completely original-to-Hulu series Difficult People and Casual, both of which have been quite good.

That might be good enough to top Amazon, whose original-series department is floundering, but it's still a far cry from what Netflix can offer. Yet Hulu is closing the gap, investing seriously in original programming, to the degree that it will air a miniseries adaptation of a Stephen King novel starring James Franco next year. If you primarily care about original programming, Netflix is still your best bet — but it might not be for long.

Netflix is still also your best bet when it comes to movies, though the service has faltered a bit in recent months, as its deal with Epix came to an end. (Hulu, incidentally, scooped that deal right up.) However, Netflix's upcoming 2016 deal with Disney could prove to be a game changer for the service — provided you like the movies of Disney and its many subsidiaries. And that's to say nothing of the service beginning to produce its own movies.

But it's not like Hulu falls apart here, either, though movies are where the service is weakest compared with its two closest competitors. Hulu has its fair share of recent Hollywood releases, to be sure, but its true strength lies in classic films, where it has a slight edge.

In particular, Hulu has the rights to much of the Criterion Collection, arguably the most obsessively, lovingly curated film library in the world, filled with some of the best movies ever made. If you can't find something to enjoy there, look harder.

No, Hulu doesn't have it all figured out yet

Seinfeld cast
Did we mention Seinfeld is on Hulu? Maybe we'll do that now.
Sony Pictures Television

Getting rid of ads was the single biggest improvement Hulu could have made, and its ad-free tier is absolutely glorious. Even the shows that have commercials still (mostly the biggest hits) have a much smaller number than were on free Hulu or old Hulu Plus. Watching a whole bunch of episodes of your favorite show is easier than ever.

However, the service still lags slightly behind Netflix in a host of technical areas. Netflix's player is the best in the business in ease of use and sheer functionality, and its algorithm to tell you what to watch next is second to none. Hulu has so much content, especially in the TV space, that it can be slightly intimidating to pick out what to watch next. That's less of a problem on Netflix. (It should be stated that both services are miles better than Amazon at all of this.)

Hulu is also not as easy to navigate. There are broad sections for TV and movies, sure, but they don't break down into subcategories as readily as Netflix's do. Netflix is primarily a tech company, one that uses your data to figure out the secret things you like that maybe even you don't know about. Hulu, on the other hand, is owned by three major broadcast networks and feels like it — it might know what you like, but it tends to slot that into an easily defined genre box.

No matter, though. Without ads, Hulu is a dream, and its library of TV shows, especially, easily outpaces Netflix's. If you're just starting to dive into this Golden Age of Television, Netflix is still a great bet. But if you're feeling a little limited by the service's offerings, Hulu should start looking very tempting.

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