Why TV Wants to Be Free

By October 27th, 2009 1 Comment

There’s been some talk in the last week (and as early as June) about Hulu probably, sometime, starting to charge, for something. Working out my feelings, as an occasional Hulu user, about this turn of events has been tricky. But it also brought something to my attention that I hadn’t quite realized: Hulu is owned by the same people who own NBC, FOX, and ABC.

Which, for me at least, alters the whole whether-or-not-Hulu-should-charge conversation.

Now, I’m not going to pretend to know a whole lot about business models. But I do watch a lot of tv, and I know what’s liable to drive me away from watching tv online: having to pay for the privilege.

Which is really kind of horrible of me. With the internet has come the wide availability of free things you used to have to pay for, but it’s also fueled the kind of familiarity and contact with content providers (authors, musicians, actors) that makes a substantial number of us, at least, want to pay for those things more. Still, it’s hard for me to make sense of paying for access to things I’ve always gotten for free (unless you count my time watching ads)–not just online, or in the past few years, but on my television set, for as long as television has existed (or, okay, as long as I’ve been alive, in my case).

Forget me not wanting to fork out any extra cash, though. Charging for Hulu seems like a bad call for the networks.

As a marketing tactic, Hulu is pretty brilliant. With so many shows to choose from these days–and so many shows lately that require you to watch weekly to really follow the plot–giving viewers another way to see the episodes they might have missed makes it more likely they’ll stay engaged enough to watch the next episode on air (resulting, one assumes, in higher ratings numbers and thus more advertising money down the road).

The best thing networks can do for struggling shows, in my book, is make as many previous episodes as possible available online, for free. (I’m not even convinced DVD sales, in the long run, would really suffer.) Make playing catch-up easy, and you’ll have a better chance of attracting new viewers late in the game.

By charging–depending on exactly what Hulu decides to charge for–I imagine Hulu may alienate enough of its audience that it won’t be able to have this same effect.

Hulu may, through subscription, make enough money to cover its costs, and even make a tidy little profit. But I don’t know if that’s Hulu’s real value to the networks that own it (not to mention all of the rest) in the long run.

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1 Comment On "Why TV Wants to Be Free"

  1. Steph

    I agree with much of what you’ve said here. I actually prefer to watch TV on my TV–because I’m old now, apparently, and find having to stare down at a laptop winds up with a sore neck and shoulders, and also I can’t knit as easily–but Hulu has definitely kept me tuning into some shows when I’ve missed an episode. I like my shows complicated, for the most part, and I hate when forgetting to set my DVR or having a technical issue with recording means I’m lost for the rest of that story arc. Without Hulu, I’d likely stop watching those shows entirely out of frustration. Especially if it’s not a show that repeats often.

    That said, I don’t think a subscription model is necessarily the end of the world. It all depends on how it’s structured. The reports I’ve seen indicate that Hulu would still offer free content, and I could see a real revenue model that works based on providing premium service on a subscription basis. Still offer the free shows, sure–but if I used Hulu a lot, I’d pay to watch ad-free. For the die-hard fans, exclusive behind-the-scenes content might provide enough incentive. So, I think it really depends on what the business model ultimately is.

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