Hulu's growing pains might mean shift to cable-style subscription. But do we still need Hulu?

hulu-logoHulu’s future remains up in the air thanks to all the cooks in its Internet kitchen: According to a Wall Street Journal article today, the site’s owners are “increasingly at odds over Hulu’s business model,” and that Fox and ABC might pull their programming. But things could get even crazier than that:

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.

Wasn’t Hulu supposed to be one of my alternatives to bundled cable or satellite?

As a faithful Hulu watcher and long-time devotee and Hu-vangelest, it pains me to wonder this, but: Why did companies like Fox or NBC train viewers to find their content on Hulu, rather than on their own sites? Hulu’s once-essential asset was that it became synonymous with online availability: “Is it on Hulu?” meant “Can I watch it online, for free, legally and easily?” Except now, there are lots of non-Hulu options, and as Netflix continues to grow in the streaming and TV marketplace, Hulu seems more and more like a blip. (For perspective, from the WSJ story: “In 2010, Hulu reported revenue of more than $260 million, up from $108 million in 2009. Netflix, which also rents out DVDs, had revenue of $2.16 billion last year.”)

And thus we’re left to wonder not just how Hulu might save itself, but also if it should. With all the ways to watch content online, do we still need Hulu? Is there a difference between watching something on Hulu and watching it on, say, ABC.com or something? Not anymore, which is too bad, because once upon a time, Hulu’s calling card was how much better its site was than everything else. It was clean, it was consistent, and it was stable. Now that other sites have caught up, Hulu’s luscious UI doesn’t seem like enough anymore.

So what could Hulu do that would be its big, business-busting idea that would again put it at the forefront of online video consumption? Night-of programming. Right now, Hulu’s caught between the premium, paid Netflix model and the free, renegade, and illegal online viewing options. Hulu Plus just didn’t stack up to Netflix. But what if Hulu could effectively compete for the audience that now just fires up some crappy Megavideo version of the show that aired just hours before? I’d pay for that, as long as it was a la carte, and thus distinct from obnoxiously bundled cable packages. A live or nearly-live option is exactly what could revive the company — not to mention fully distinguish it from Netflix. Perhaps those owners and executives are on to something….

Put on your MBA caps, bust out your telcom know-how, and hunker down with all the major TV CEOs you can conjure: What would you do with Hulu, PopWatchers?

Comments (25 total) Add your comment
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  • Geronimo

    I still count on hulu, but am not ready to move up to a pay service. However, if I could get all the programs w/o commercial breaks for $4.99/month, I would pay. But the commercial breaks are shorter on hulu than on the network sites (especially CW). Or do as TNT does, at least with Men of a Certain Age, and put the commercials on the side of the screen.

    But for now, I still count on basic hulu.

    • FromChicago

      I watch documentaries and other TV features on Hulu and appreciate the service. However, a subscription wouldn’t work for me. A pay per view would work. For example, if Kitchen Nightmares is available for 99c I wouldn’t mind paying to see it, but I’m not into the monthly cable-fee setup. AND they want you to watch commercials! No way.

  • peter griffin

    There are a lot of shows that are not streamflixed (netflix streaming)especially HBO material… (show lois naked too giggidy)

  • TQB

    What’s the difference? Hulu gives you a queue, tells you when new episodes are available and when they expire. Watching on CBS.com means looking up a show, sifting through endless clips and trying to figure out which episode it is you haven’t seen. Don’t even get me started on how hard it is to figure out viewing new episodes on History.com. I just don’t see where you can say that Hulu has nothing to offer over and above the network’s own websites. It’s 10 times easier and more convenient.

  • Booyah

    The advantages of Hulu over network sites are the ability to set up playlists, subscribe to shows, and see shows from multiple networks in one place. See the drop in online viewers for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report since they left Hulu if you want evidence.

  • Winona

    I don’t care where I get it, as long as I can find shows streaming online – even if I did have to pay a nominal fee, it would be nice to have them all in one place, like HULU. I don’t have cable or a DVR, so I do rely on the Internet for a chunk of my TV watching.

  • JLC

    Why don’t they just give us ala carte cable and get it over with? All of these alternatives show people want to pay just for what they watch. Why do they keep dancing around the real issue?

  • Micah

    The biggest benefit that Hulu has over Netflix is the immediate streaming of shows that were just aired 24 hours prior. Netflix continues to make statements that they are increasing the number of shows available for immediate streaming. They even plan on boosting fees because of it. However, the ability to watch a show that I missed one day after it aired on Hulu is something that Netflix just does not have available. Most newer shows are only available on disc and not on streaming with Netflix.

    • Alli

      So true- Hulu is where I watch THIS season of TV and I watch Netfix for past season tv

    • jenn

      Same here, I use both in tandum. I don’t have cable tv, so I watch netflix to catch older seasons, and them catch the latest seasons and episodes on hulu.

  • Lauren

    I agree that Hulu’s strongest appeal is watching shows from different networks in one place. I like the ability to set up subscriptions and I still think the interface is better than most sites. But it is not a service I am interested in paying for. We already have cable and Netflix and I don’t think I would be willing to start paying for something I used to get for free.

  • Daniel

    Two things could change and get me to subscribe to Hulu Plus. First, access to Hulu plus on wii. Second, if shows were put up live or almost live. I canceled cable and don’t have an antenna so I use netflix on the wii for most of my tv watching. But for all new episodes I go online on my computer. If I could watch new content on my tv it would be worth paying $8/month.

  • Sarah O

    I have a Roku, and there are lots of things I can watch on Hulu that I can’t get from Netflix and other online streaming sources. So yes, I would like Hulu to stick around!

  • DW

    The thing I need from Hulu, and something I currently have via Netflix and illegal downloads, is a way to watch the content easily on my TV. Until I can do that, Hulu is useless to me.

    • Trace

      Buy a PS3 or a Blu-Ray player and subscribe to Hulu Plus for $7.99 a month and you can stream Hulu shows to your TV. That’s what I do.

  • Crystal

    Hulu is nice in that it has subscriptions and a que, but I have been using it less as the network sites have become more user friendly. I would pay for hulu if cable shows (fx, tnt, usa) were available day-of or within 2 days of airing.

  • ShadowWing Tronix

    One thing nobody has mentioned (and maybe the network sites do this, I don’t recall seeing the option) is the ability to embed shows on your site. I know I’ve used it quite often to spotlight old and current series I think my readers should check out.

  • mangotango

    As a college student, I would be very upset if free Hulu access went away. My college doesn’t offer easy TV access in our dorm rooms, and I just don’t have time to watch shows live, so I watch them at random times during the week. Additionally, despite knowing how to get shows on Megavideo, I’ll still watch a new episode on Hulu where I have to sit through commercials because I know it benefits the show’s ratings, the network, and the website. I’d even happily sit through more commercials if it means that Hulu stays around.

  • Gia

    I like Hulu’s current set up, but all good things change. Another option is to use TV software services like the one from the TVDevo.com website and get pretty much the same thing streamed to your PC. You can also connect your PC to a TV screen and wind up with the same thing.

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