Online TV streaming site Hulu has been a success since launching in March 2008, be it one by numbers as it has attracted more and more viewers.
That it might not be covering costs yet is a given, but if you believe the rhetoric coming from various corners of the media world, Hulu is also bad for television. According to some, Hulu is cannibalizing TV and cable viewers while not providing a matching revenue stream to replace the revenue loss from the switch to online. Such talk has led to speculation that Hulu will start charging for access next year as a way to increase revenue back to content creators.
There’s a perfectly sound argument behind the idea that some people are willing to pay for access, and no doubt that in the scheme of things Hulu will probably pick up a reasonable amount of paying subscribers. But in considering charging, what seems to be lost is one of the reasons Hulu was established as a free streaming site in the first place: content piracy.
Hulu was intended to provide a legal, on demand free streaming alternative to online piracy, and as we noted back in May, may actually have succeeded in dropping piracy in the United States by a significant amount. Sure, piracy still exists, but Hulu proved that given a legal alternative people were happy to do the right thing.
If Hulu puts up a paywall, or as others have suggested seriously delays distribution of shows (an exclusive TV “broadcast window” of 4-8 days) does the industry seriously believe that users won’t return to piracy, a consumption type where they receive nothing in return for each play, vs at least something from Hulu?
What isn’t much discussed in the media, mostly due to the obsession with BitTorrent (and specifically the PirateBay) is that you can watch just about anything via online streaming sites showing pirated content today, something that did exist previously, but has really become popular in the last 12 months (particularly outside of the United States.) The switch from Hulu to pirated content isn’t as difficult as switching from Hulu to waiting hours for a BitTorrent download, it’s now just a case of hitting a directory site to find the content, then watching the stream often seconds later.
What’s more, the stigma attached to BitTorrent doesn’t exist nearly as much with these sites, because although you might get a cached copy of the file, you’re not actually downloading it in a traditional sense, nor likewise sharing it with others. These sites are already seen as a low risk, friendlier face to online piracy, and millions of Hulu users will flock to them if Hulu is crippled in any shape or form.
Messing with Hulu will be a retrograde step that takes the positive progression of old media meeting the demands of its viewers in recent years backwards, and the only losers will be the same old media companies pushing for change with Hulu.