Hulu: Always in Jeopardy, Still the Same Hulu

Hulu has always walked a fine line between fending off piracy and endangering the cable business.

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Jared Newman /

The Hulu that you’ve come to know and love is in danger. But then again, it’s always been that way.

Although the streaming video site just reached a milestone of one billion videos watched over a three month period, a recent story by The New York Times describes Hulu’s future as “nebulous.” With the service now up for sale, some potential buyers want to preserve the status quo of free, ad-based streaming, while others wish to keep the site “under lock and key, exclusively for the use of cable subscribers,” the Times reports.

Should you be worried? Perhaps, but keep in mind that we’ve been reading variations on this story for years now, and through it all the core service hasn’t changed much since it launched in 2008. If you want to watch the latest episode of Parks & Recreation, Modern Family or The Colbert Report on your computer, is still the main place to go.

Join me, if you will, on a brief tour of panicky Hulu headlines through the years:

Will Hulu make you pay to watch?” Los Angeles Times, October 2009:

Since Hulu launched early last year, its popularity has quadrupled as millions of people turn to the free online video site to watch episodes of such television shows as “Family Guy,” “The Office” and “Modern Family.”

Some wonder how long the free flow of online video would last if Comcast Corp. ends up a part owner of Hulu.

Comcast bought a majority stake in NBC two years ago (and eventually acquired the entire company), but regulators have forbidden Comcast from making decisions on Hulu. Meanwhile, Hulu Plus has remained an extension to the free service, bringing access to phones, tablets and TV boxes and providing some additional content. The website still provides free access to the latest episodes of most shows.

Hulu Reworks Its Script as Digital Change Hits TV,” Wall Street Journal, January 2011:

Just as the digital wave transforms the television industry, Hulu, a pioneer of Internet TV, is in internal discussions to dramatically transform itself.

Fox Broadcasting owner News Corp. and ABC owner Disney are contemplating pulling some free content from Hulu, say people familiar with the matter. The media companies are also moving to sell more programs to Hulu competitors that deliver television over the Internet, including Netflix Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc.

And in what would be a major shift in direction, Hulu management has discussed recasting Hulu as an online cable operator that would use the Web to send live TV channels and video-on-demand content to subscribers, say people familiar with the talks. The new service, which is still under discussion, would mimic the bundles of channels now sold by cable and satellite operators, the people said.

Although Fox now delays the arrival of new shows on Hulu by eight days for non-cable subscribers, and only puts the four most recent episodes of a given show online instead of the standard five, there has been no grand exodus of content from Hulu yet. No other companies have hidden Hulu shows behind a cable authentication wall, though there have been some murmurs that ABC may someday withhold shows from non-paying customer.

TV in real dime: Hulu, networks to change model of free streaming,” New York Post, April 2012:

Viewers who stream network TV shows may soon discover the free ride is not so free.

Hulu, which attracted 31 million unique users in March under a free-for-all model, is taking its first steps to change to a model where viewers will have to prove they are a pay-TV customer to watch their favorite shows, sources tell The Post.

Again, Fox is currently the only media company that asks you to prove you’re a cable subscriber, and that’s only if you want to watch a show before the eight-day delay period has passed. No other companies have jumped on the authentication bandwagon yet. In fact, a follow-up story by TechCrunch noted that “Hulu has no interest in being a first mover here and that a requirement for authentication is likely still a few years out.”

With or Without Jason Kilar, Hulu’s Overhaul Will Be Huge,” All Things D, August 2012:

The bigger news in the Variety story is the rest of the stuff in the memo, which is about the future of Hulu itself, regardless of who runs it.

In short, it paints a picture of a site and service that will operate much differently than the one that launched in 2008. Instead of being the Web’s primary place to see TV shows from Fox, NBC, and ABC, Hulu will now be one place among many where you can see some of that stuff. With certain restrictions.

The story in All Things D summarizes a Variety story, which says content owners could put their shows on other sites besides Hulu, or withhold them from Hulu entirely. It hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not sure why it would make sense for companies like Fox and ABC to force viewers away from Hulu to begin with. I could see why companies would want to offer videos directly through their own websites and apps–some networks, such as ABC and NBC, do so already–but withholding content just to prevent people from using Hulu would only cause confusion.

I’m not saying that Hulu is impervious to change. As we’ve seen with the launch of Hulu Plus in 2010, the attempts at original programming and Fox’s eight-day delay on adding new shows, Hulu is always evolving. But none of those changes have come at the expense of the core website, which exists to let you legally watch ad-supported TV shows for free.

Maybe the sale of Hulu will finally be the impetus for sweeping changes, but I’m skeptical. The site has always walked a fine line between fending off piracy and endangering the cable business with too much free content. That conflict will continue to define Hulu long after ownership changes hands.