Thursday, July 1, 2010

Hulu Plus: You Got Your TV in My Internets!

huluThis week, TV-on-the-Internet hub Hulu finally announced its anticipated Hulu Plus subscription service, and dozens of cable company suits shivered simultaneously.

For $9.99 a month, Hulu makes some substantial promises to potential subscribers: All episodes of the current season of popular TV shows will be available, as opposed to only five. Some shows will have their entire runs available for viewing on the site – notable examples include Arrested Development, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files, along with stuff like the entirety of The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Greatest American Hero. True HD content will finally be available, and it’ll play on your iPods and iPads and eventually your major gaming consoles as well.

In August, I reach the end of a two-year subscription agreement with Time Warner Cable. We were already going to cut the cable in favor of Hulu and Netflix streaming, but if we were teetering on the edge of this decision, I could easily see Hulu Plus pushing us over the edge. If it can deliver on its promises, it’s going to push a lot of Internet-savvy cable customers the same way.

The first thing Hulu Plus really brings to the table is an increasing parity with the features of a traditional cable provider combined with a Tivo box (or something similar) – much current TV will be available on-demand, and in high definition to boot. To take the place of re-runs, note the aforementioned availability of older shows and past seasons of some currently airing shows.

Next on Hulu Plus’s list of merits is the number of devices on which it can be used. PCs are a no-brainer, as they’re where Hulu had its genesis. Hulu Plus will bring TV to your iPhones and iPods and iPads, to some Internet-enabled TVs and Blu Ray players, and (eventually) to the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. You can watch TV on your TV, but Hulu Plus will let you watch it most other places too.

Assuming the service’s success, cable’s advantages become fewer, though still distinct. The biggest advantage is first availability, which maintains its allure even (perhaps especially) in the thing-a-minute, breakneck speed of the Internet age. The success of Tivo and of Hulu itself says that people are willing (and sometimes required) to watch shows after the fact, but programming still lives and dies mostly based on Nielsen ratings at time of first airing.

Cable’s other trump card is sheer quantity of content – channel surfing away from the biggest networks can land you in all kinds of weird shit, from Lingo to Ninja Warrior to stuff your mom watches to reruns of Rocko’s Modern Life. Hulu, even with its new Plus service, even with its back catalog, can provide only a fraction of the content that cable can. It arguably provides the most popular content, but not all of it – regular TV and DVD box sets certainly won’t be replaced by Hulu just yet.

Transitions like this are always gradual, though. Hulu’s not putting any nails in TV’s coffin just yet, but the content situation will improve gradually. It’s an if-you-build-it-they-will-come situation. If Hulu successfully generates profits with the Plus model, you can bet that other content providers will want to get in on it.

Which leads me to my next, perhaps most salient point. Hulu Plus is also important because no one can figure out how to make money from the Internet. If the pay service succeeds, as I believe it has the potential to, it could make the case for the for-pay subscription model, helping to replace the everything-for-free model we’ve become accustomed to since the advent of the Information Superhighway. People will pay if your service is worth it (see Xbox Live) – maybe Hulu Plus can define what “worth it” means for consumers.