What one choice could end Hulu as a company completely?

02.03.16 2 years ago

According to a new report from The Wall Street Journal, Time Warner is in the early stages of conversations that would see the media giant buy 25% of Hulu. Seems rational enough to me. But in the story, one of the ideas that is floated is that Time Warner is worried about cord cutting and looking to downplay or even end one of the main functions of Hulu as a service by doing away with next-day streaming episodes of current TV shows.

If it's true, then my relationship with Hulu Plus will end immediately after a very happy nine year subscription to the service.

I was an early adopter, first signing up in late 2007, and, yes, I would love to cut the cable cord completely. I have Charter Communications as my cable/Internet provider right now, and my service on the cable side is, in a word, awful. I detest cable. I detest bundling. I actively resent paying for 100s of channels I don't use. I am in many ways a dream consumer for the studios because I am happy to pay for the media I want. I insist on it, actually. But when it comes to paying for media I don't want and that I won't ever use? Well, that's where it starts to seriously piss me off.

Hulu has some very nice reasons to be a subscriber, and primary among those is their deal with the Criterion Collection. I've been buying Criterion titles on laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray since 1990, and I adore the company. They have an amazing library of titles, especially through their Janus Films deal, and many of those titles have never been released on physical media of any kind. Hulu's Criterion channel is absolutely terrific, full of films that you will not find streaming anywhere else. For genuinely important cinema from around the world, it is the unequaled champion for depth and breadth. I love smaller services like Fandor and MUBI and VUDU each for different reasons, but none of them compare to just how much genuinely great content you get from that Criterion Hulu channel. It's remarkable. I make it a point to watch two films every week that I haven't seen from that channel, and there are hundreds left that I have yet to see.

But I use Hulu far more often than that twice a week. I think it's safe to say that Hulu gets daily usage by me through my XBox or my laptop or my KindleFire. I use it to watch The Daily Show every day. There are a variety of shows that I watch on Hulu every week. Right now, I'm subscribed to Agent Carter, The X-Files, The Flash, Legends Of Tomorrow, Undateable: Live, The Grinder, The Carmichael Show, Penn & Teller: Fool Us, iZombie, Fresh Off The Boat, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Last Man On Earth, Master Chef (the regular and the junior editions), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, South Park, Marvel's Agents Of SHIELD, Bob's Burgers, New Girl, The Mindy Project, and The Simpsons. I don't watch every episode the moment they air, but I watch enough of them that if Hulu ends next-day streaming, that ends my participation in any sort of current cultural conversation about TV. In many cases, I let things stack up, then watch in chunks. I'm also subscribed to Casual and Difficult People, which are between seasons, both original productions by Hulu, and I'm looking forward to The Path and 11/22/63 this year. I think Hulu is an invaluable tool in the way I consume television.

And, look, I'll pay for a season of a new show if I'm interested enough. I subscribed to HBO Now so I can watch Game Of Thrones and Veep and Silicon Valley and the occasional documentary. I bought the final season of The League from Amazon Prime, and I bought the current season of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia as well as the just-wrapped first season of The Expanse. These are shows that don't air on Hulu, and I'm willing to pay for some shows. I only recently added Amazon Prime so I could see The Man In The High Castle, Catastrophe, Bosch, Red Oaks, and Transparent. Looking around their movie selection, I think Amazon Prime is terrible. They're really only a TV service, and while there are a few older shows here I haven't been able to catch up on anywhere else, like Orphan Black, I don't know if there's enough about Amazon Prime for me to keep a subscription after I burn through the things I'd like to see. I'd rather just buy seasons of shows I'm interested in a la carte, frankly.

And that's the real problem, isn't it? Right now, the media mega-providers hate the notion of a la carte. They hate the idea that I might just consume the exact things I want to consume, the exact way I want to consume them. Time Warner wants to push things back towards the model of you having to buy bundles that include all sorts of things you don't want just to get the things you do.

The entire time I was married, there was a particular problem I had with cable providers that drove me insane, and it's part of the reason I hate bundling so much. My wife was from Argentina, so there were certain channels she wanted, and there were certain channels I wanted. The way the packages worked, and this was with every provider we tried, was that there were basic English channels, an advanced package beyond that, and then things started to get dicey. While I could get basics like FX and MTV and Comedy Central and most of the news channels with the basic or expanded English channels, I could never get all the things I wanted. There was one more tier I would have had to add to get BBC America, for example, or Fox Movies Channel and, in many cases, Turner Classic Movies. The problem was that for us to get the expanded Spanish-language package that included not only the mainstream US Spanish-language channels but also networks from South America including an Argentinian station, we had to make a choice. I could either get that or the second tier of expanded English language channels. To get both would bump us up so high that we'd be looking at $150 to $175 per month.

And in all honesty, we'd only end up using something like forty out of the hundreds of channels we'd end up with. Allowing us to subscribe to each of those forty channels for a much lower fee would still have had us on the hook, but it would have given us control, and we would have been much more willing to work with the cable company. Taking away that control and forcing bundled packages full of garbage on us and delivering sub-par quality and customer service has only made me hate my various cable providers. Right now, Charter Communications works through my XBox in such random patterns that it's almost like a practical joke.

Hulu has made recent decisions to try to bump up their movie catalog, striking deals to take over some of the content packages that Epix no longer has the rights to, but just shoveling in Paramount's recent theatrical release doesn't mean I suddenly see Hulu as a movie provider. That's not what they've been, and that's not why I use the service. They are a TV app. They are a TV service. And the primary distinguishing characteristic of Hulu is that they provide a show the day after it airs on the original broadcast network.

Take that away and I'm done.

I said something to that effect on Twitter today, and at least 100 people either liked or RT'd it within hours. A few people said, “it's not Hulu's decision. It's coming from Time Warner,” as if that means that I'll change my mind. There are already deals in place that limit how effective Hulu can be. Some shows will allow every episode to be hosted on Hulu. With The Flash, though, I had to sit out all of season one because by the time people started telling me to tune in, I was more than five episodes out from the pilot, and CW shows only have the last five episodes available at any one time. That means people can't jump in late and catch up effectively, which can only benefit the network when it's allowed. Making a deal like that does more harm than good, and now Time Warner is seriously considering and pushing towards dropping current season episodes altogether.

Take that away and I'm done.

Jeff Bewkes of Time Warner is very simply wrong about all of this. His idea that getting rid of a service like Hulu will bring people back to cable is insanity. This is radio screaming about TV. This is theater owners crying about home video. This is mass media content providers fundamentally misunderstanding once again that people are not looking to do away with or completely replace the old way of doing things; they are simply embracing new choices. There's a paragraph in the Wall Street Journal story that I find quite telling:

Time Warner, whose stock price has fallen back to around the level it was at before the company rejected a takeover bid from 21st Century Fox in 2014, is under pressure to show investors it has a plan to thrive in a TV environment where streaming media is on the rise. (Until mid-2013, 21st Century Fox and The Wall Street Journal-owner News Corp were part of the same company.) Time Warner stock closed at $70.36 in New York on Friday.

Okay, Time Warner, you really want to show you can thrive? Think of new ways to engage customers and make us feel like you're listening to us and serving our needs rather than forcing us to do something simply because it puts more of our money in your pocket. You know who's doing the best in this new media moment? Brands that make the customer feel valued and wanted and involved in how they consume the content they consume. The more choice you give the consumer, the more valued they feel. But if you continue to force us to do things your way, then you're going to push more and more consumers to find alternatives, and some of those alternatives are going to cost you real money.

I am not a pirate. I am trying to give you my money. I don't advocate piracy, and I hate how easy it is for people to steal content right now. I am on your side, and that is exactly why I pay for Hulu. That's how I want to watch my shows. That and Netflix and Amazon are all services I willingly pay for right now, and if I choose to cut the cord but keep paying you for that content that way, then you know what? Stop crying about the past, accept the future, and take my goddamn money. Because the alternative is that you're going to ruin what you've created, which is a viable alternative to the old way of thinking. And while I may sound like a broken record, I mean it.

Take that away, and I'm done.

And I suspect I'm not alone.

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