Hulu just launched a Watch Party feature to let you stream with friends

The timing honestly couldn't be better. Unfortunately, it only works for ad-free subscribers right now.

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Hulu is testing a dedicated Watch Party service to allow subscribers to stream TV and movies with friends from afar, Variety reports. The streaming platform beat competitors like Netflix and Disney+ to the punch with its official in-house group-viewing solution; over the last few months, users have been turning to third-party services to achieve the same effect.

Now you really have no reason to ever leave your couch.via Hulu

Beginning today, Hulu subscribers will be able to create a chat room with a virtual screen that can be shared with up to eight viewers. There’s just one catch: at launch the feature only works for Hulu’s more expensive ad-free tier. You’re out of luck if you want to pay less and also stream with friends. Viewers will also need to be 18 or older to join a Watch Party.

Stay-at-home measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic have made virtual watch parties more popular than ever, but until now it was necessary to use one of a variety of third-party apps to stream with friends. Hulu’s quick release of the feature sets it a few steps ahead of its main competitor Netflix, which hasn’t made any note of a similar feature in the pipeline.

How do you enable it? — The first version of Hulu’s Watch Party feature is live now and can be accessed from the main Hulu website. Starting a viewing party takes just a few clicks.

On any titles supported in the rollout — of which Hulu says there are thousands — a small Watch Party icon will be displayed on the details page. Clicking that icon will generate a link that can then be shared with the rest of the party.

A slight twist — Hulu has taken the liberty of switching up one of the major features of most third-party group-streaming options. Rather than the streams being 100-percent synchronized, Hulu’s Watch Party allows each user to play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind only their own playback. Don’t worry too much about getting behind, though: Hulu will give you the option to catch up with the group after your bathroom break.

Smart move, Hulu — The streaming wars are crowded and mostly bleak in 2020. That means it’s more important than ever for major players to distinguish themselves amongst the pack. Hulu’s move to release a built-in Watch Party feature in the midst of a global pandemic shows the company can still be quick on its toes. Users deciding between streaming providers for their next watch party are likely to flock to Hulu as a first choice. It might even convince some ad-supported subscribers to upgrade to the ad-free tier so they can take part.

While Hulu isn’t the first to hit play on this idea — Amazon’s Prime Video can be streamed through Twitch, and HBO has a partnership with Screner for similar offerings — it’s the first to be built into the service’s main website, without any need for plugin downloads or external logins.

As this is Hulu’s first testing period for the new feature, we’ll likely see some bugs and user pushback. The choice to allow users to control only their individual playback is a new one, and it’s going to take some time for users to grow comfortable with the interface.

Now all eyes will be on Netflix for the OG streaming giant to release a similar feature of its own. Choosing not to do so at this point would just be a bad business move.