Tuesday, November 3, 2009

I worry that the internet will kill everything I love.

I am, I feel, often a couple of steps behind mass culture.

Actually, this appears to be true only about a subgroup of TV shows that we might label THE MOST AWESOME TV SHOWS EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.

Among the TV shows I got around to watching after they'd finished their first time around: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly / Serenity, Jericho, Battlestar Galactica. And now: Dr. Who. I'm only five episodes in to the first season and I'm head over heels. (the special effects! the character development! the joy with which Rose and the Doctor thrust themselves toward adventure! those radiant, radiant smiles!)

But enough about me. Let's talk about Hulu.

More specifically, let's talk about the cheap and free media-streaming services that offer a kind of on-demand programming experience--movies, TV shows, digital shorts--to anyone with a computer and a moderately reliable internet connection. Hulu, a joint venture funded by NBC and Fox, is the second most popular video viewing site on the web. (YouTube was tops, but then again it's hard to beat the king.) It's not hard to figure out why. Hulu features a deep vault of new shows and older classics, and it offers links to streams of shows not hosted on Hulu. (Because it's affiliated with its parent networks, the Hulu-hosted offerings stick mainly to those owned by NBC, Fox and Hulu-affiliated networks.)

I still watch a few shows on TV so I can have that old-time "community of fans, in this together" experience (SAMCRO FTW), and I subscribe to Netflix, through which I receive about 2 DVDs a month and watch up to a dozen shows and movies online. But the rest--the rest comes for free, mainly through Hulu and other franchise-sponsored media sites.

Which is why I was so sad to hear that Hulu is considering a switch to a paid format for at least some of its content, at least according to News Corp. Deputy Chairman Chase Carey (News Corp. is a part-owner of Hulu).
Here's what he said recently about the struggles of making content available for free online:

I think a free model is a very difficult way to capture the value of our content. I think what we need to do is deliver that content to consumers in a way where they will appreciate the value. Hulu concurs with that. It needs to evolve to have a meaningful subscription model as part of its business.

Hulu does have a revenue stream in the form of ads, and back in June the big news was that for the first time, it cost more to run a commercial during the Hulu version of The Simpsons than to air one on TV. Presumably, then, this could be a functional business model: On-air advertising + Hulu advertising = the cost of TV broadcast + streaming the show on Hulu.

Either it's not enough revenue, or it's not enough revenue to pay for the hulking television industry whose very structure willfully ignores that the 3-party entertainment system (ABC, CBS, NBC) is decades behind us, never to return.

The manager of a laundromat near my house has posted a sign informing customers something to the effect that "heating & electricity costs went up by $60,000 last year. We have to pass that cost on to our customers." I wonder if the 17th Street Coin Laundry has tried cutting its own costs, as well: installing energy-efficient dryers, insulating doors and windows, sealing up the leaky washing machines. (Or maybe they're trying to save money through the marked lack of laundry baskets, chairs, and bike racks.) Since there's a rececssion on, though, it's likely that long-term fixes have been shunned in favor of the immediate payoff of passing costs on to the customer. I wonder if the same is true of the entertainment industry. Couple the recession with the tension over how to leverage new, cheaper technologies for mass circulation of media, and what you get is a morass so profound it'll take years to dig out. We made TV content available almost for free once before, during the soft spot when TVs got so cheap that almost every American household had one and cable hadn't yet taken hold. Doing that again will take time, money, and a commitment to free that Big Media hasn't demonstrated.

I have previously written about the difference between "news" and "the news," and have argued that making news (if not the news) available to everyone for free is an undergirding principle of a democratic society founded on the tenets of free speech and a free press. There is no similar right to entertainment, but it's not a stretch to argue that making media content freely available to all citizens can be democratizing in ways that free news alone cannot achieve. Especially in an increasingly participatory culture, where civic engagement is as likely to focus on electoral politics as on the politics of entertainment, corporate control, and popular culture, more access to more content can mean more democracy.

But making this happen requires a commitment to sustainable economic models and revenue streams. And the work of establishing these appears to be out of the purview of many media types. Indeed, many--including Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes--are pursuing another approach: Offering flat-rate subscriptions to TV content across multiple media platforms. Presumably, a subscriber to this "TV Everywhere" program would have access to 'premium' Hulu material in addition to more traditional cable content.

I wonder if newspapers are getting on board with this. It seems likely that the bundling system we're seeing in cable subscriptions might be a palatable model for news sites, which can make premium content accessible to subscribers on some sort of graduated system. A $29.95 monthly fee might, for example, get you basic cable, HBO, Hulu and the Washington Post. They might even offer a discount for the first year, with an option to renew!

We stand together, poised at the edge. We can, together, walk the path toward greatness by embracing the free-access, free-content, free-communication model of the internet, and by devising alternate revenue strategies that pass the costs of such a model on to corporations and advertisers; or we can take the darker path, the one bordered by pay walls, peppered with the stones of micropayments, and clouded over by limited-access news sites. For a short while, the paths will run nearly parallel, so close that it will seem as if they're practically the same; but eventually the paths will diverge too much and there will be no turning back.


Anonymous said...

I don't know about all that, but I do want to know how I make hulu keep being hulu.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about all that, but I do want to know how I make hulu keep being hulu.


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