According to this story on EW.com, Hulu may start charging viewers to watch its content. Ah, internet bait and switch - why do you taunt us so? First you get us hooked with your free programming and pretty interface, then, when we come to rely on you most, when we're hooked like a baby on lollipops, you pull the trigger.
"That first lollipop was good, eh, kid? If you want another, it's gonna cost you..."
Oh, Hulu, you crack dealing pimp master of reruns ...
The reaction on EW.com is predictable. Some angry, some hurt, many vowing to never again grace Hulu with their presence. And I do understand the feeling of betrayal, but I also see the other side. Admittedly, it seems a bit of a dark side at first.
Of all those threatening to vacate Hulu's hallowed halls, some, perhaps many of them, will eat crow and plunk down the money. Now, I'm assuming that Hulu is going to maintain a modest subscription fee, perhaps five to ten dollars a month. Should this premise prove faulty and Hulu attempts a more ambitious pricing, then all that follows will be moot.
Why am I so confident that Hulu will succeed with its diabolical plan? My reasons are three-fold:
1) People are slowly getting used to paying for content on the Internet. Thank you, iTunes. Even with the plethora of free music out there, people flock to iTunes like it's a Sam Goody in a Jersey mall circa 1989. People like being able to satisfy all their music (in this case, television) needs in one place. Ah, but people were already trained to pay for music - we don't pay for network television...
2) A lot of the comments on the EW story discuss using torrent sites or other video hosting sites to find their favorite episodes for free. They say it's pointless to pay for something that is ostensibly free. Some will do this. Most, I'm willing to bet, have grown accustomed to Hulu's one-stop re-run emporium. And it's so pretty too, isn't it? That nice clean interface - all of our favorite shows so easy to find. That's going to be tough to give up. If there's one thing pop culture has taught me, it's that people have no problem paying for pretty and pointless things. See: Jessica Simpson.
3) Hulu did its homework. They are not doing this blindly. I have no doubt they did countless market research studies to test the viability of this plan. I'm taking a shot in the dark here, but I bet they found that people's viewing habits are slowly changing. More and more, people are turning to places like Hulu to catch their favorite shows. If Hulu is catching this wave at the right time, then it might just lead them to great rewards. Between shows I DVR and shows I watch On Demand, there are very few shows I watch during their scheduled time. Case in point, I am obsessed with Flashforward, but right now I'm more interested in watching the Yankees take a beating from the Angels, so I'll DVR Flashforward and watch it at my leisure. Do shows need to be scheduled any more, or are weekly release dates going to become the new norm? Felicia Day's The Guild is a wildly successful Internet phenomenon whose audience anticipates each episode's release date the way my family flocked to The Love Boat on Saturday night. Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, though only three episodes, crashed servers with each episode's release, a virtual re-enactment of those hordes of Dickens groupies who would storm the docks when a new chapter of Great Expectations would arrive. Is a release date any less potent for advertisers than a regularly scheduled time slot?
BOTTOM LINE: The Times They Are a-Changing ... the free content gravy train that is the Internet has come of age. It's tired of mowing Mom and Dad's lawn for free and it wants its allowance upped. If people's viewing habits are indeed changing, then that means fewer eyes during those prime time viewing hours. It doesn't take much to see where this is going. Fewer eyes to fewer dollars to fewer shows, and that means more Leno. And nobody wants that...Is a small monthly fee too much to pay for keeping your favorite show in production?
I want to be optimistic about this. I want to believe that in the long run, this might be a good thing. With Netflix streaming more and more of its content and with Hulu's partnerships growing every day, is it so hard to imagine a household that no longer needs cable? New televisions that integrate internet streaming like this one from Toshiba certainly make this a more viable reality. Sound off ... can you envision a day not so far off when so much of your "television" viewing happens on-line that you ditch cable completely?