Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hulu Lessons

DAY 35 OF 46

If there's anything on which I'm an undisputed expert, it's old habits dying hard.

A good friend of mine likes to joke that "Tim doesn't do new well."

Indeed, I'm one of those people who Type-A innovators can't understand.  I'm not convinced change is always good, and I'm usually vilified when I question the rationale of fixing that which isn't broken.  Doing things differently just because different must be better than status-quo doesn't usually make sense to me.

For example, it took me forever to get a cell phone.  And even now, I communicate more via e-mail than anything else.  My analog TV with its digital-reception rabbit ears works just fine, so why do I need a new high-definition wide screen?  Will the junk on TV these days automatically improve just because the picture is clearer?

Back when I worked for a company that was a Microsoft Certified Partner - meaning we were constantly swimming in tides of updates and upgrades - I balked whenever the techs would come by my cubicle to "improve" the software I'd just gotten used to using.

So maybe I'm an unlikely convert to Hulu, but I have to admit:  it's a great website.

Who Knew Hulu Could Do Commercials So Well?

Do you Hulu?  It's a relatively new Internet phenom with tons of old TV shows and movies archieved so you can watch them whenever you like. They also have current TV shows and recent programs, including complete series of some shows, and a break-down of seasons complete with popularity rankings.  You can sort what you want to watch by a variety of criteria, including genre and running time.  Don't like the show you thought you wanted to watch?  No problem - just click back to the menu to find something else.

Although they have a "premium" service to which you can subscribe for a monthly fee, most of Hulu is free.  Yes, you have to sit through commercials while watching your show, but even there, Hulu has tried to make the advertising as painless as possible.  Sometimes it's even interactive, so you feel you have some control over it.  Although most commercials still simply rotate through, during each commercial brake, you're told how many commercials are in the queue, and how long they'll take.

Surprisingly, instead of encouraging you to get up and do something else until your show comes back, Hulu's countdown clock actually convinces you that the commercials aren't really taking up as much time as you might think.  And so, I usually just sit through them, or check my e-mail with the volume of my Hulu show unmuted (which means I still hear the commercial).  Of course, they don't run five commercials in a row like broadcast television does; usually, just one or two are clumped together in a commercial break.  Having fewer commercials means you get to your show quicker, but there's also another benefit for advertisers: you can also remember the content and message of the commercials better than if you're forced to endure a litany of jingles, slogans, and brand names. Clever thinking on Hulu's part, right?

Why am I spending so much time describing the commercials on Hulu?  Because like just about any broadcasting venture, advertising is where the money is.  So it benefits enterprises relying on commercials to know how to optimize them.  And with Hulu, although it's still there, the advertising is more innocuous than anything on broadcast TV.  Sometimes, you get to even choose the commercial you want to watch; how counter-cultural is that?  Or sometimes you can rate the commercials, so Hulu can tailor the ads they associate with your browser's caching cookie like FaceBook does. Hey; so it's a little like Big Brother - what isn't these days?

The theory behind all of these kinder, gentler commercials seems to be that the more relevant the commercial is to the viewer, the greater the impact that commercial will have, and therefore, the greater the advertiser's ROI.  Which means eventually, Hulu's revenue can increase, as their viewers know they're not being beaten over the head for wanting free Internet TV shows, and advertisers know their money is being targeted more effectively.

The whole experience strikes me as being as user-friendly as advertising can be, at least at this time in the evolution of our still-nascent Internet journey.

So, I get to choose the shows I want to watch, whenever I'm ready to watch them.  I know how long each will take, the commercials I have to watch have been electronically cultivated to respect my time as much as commercials can, and the entire user interface is remarkably intuitive. The only real disappointment with Hulu is when you discover they haven't yet created a library of a particular favorite, like Hogan's Heroes or Get Smart.

These all represent reasons why Hulu has caught on with so many people.

To View Hulu Through Too Few Truths

Apparently, though, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Rumors have begun surfacing that Hulu's funders want to begin levying a fee for all users, not just premium subscribers, and cram in more commercials; two of the same tactics, by the way, that conventional legacy broadcast companies have used for their business models in the past.

Today's Los Angeles Times ran a story about how some of the entertainment industry's old guard has been caught off-guard by the surprising potential of running TV shows over the Internet.  Hulu is bankrolled by Disney, Fox, and NBC, and it was created several years ago to protect the television industry from being rendered obsolete by Internet technology.  Their idea was to run television programming online as a way to control the distribution and marketing of their shows, and prevent the industry implosion that technology sparked in the CD/DVD world.

To the dismay of its analog TV owners, however, the hoopla over Hulu has given the website a distinct life of its own.  You'd think they'd be happy that their investment has proven itself and begun to turn a profit, but like greedy executives everywhere, the suits at Fox, Disney, and NBC don't think they're making enough money fast enough.  They're comparing the half a billion in revenue from Hulu against the $30 billion gravy train from cable and satellite television, and not looking at the bigger picture as a new era begins to dawn on the entertainment industry.

Cable companies consistently rank high in consumer complaint listings, and some viewers have actually sparked a tiny - but growing - trend of ditching their boxes and dishes for cheap, digital rabbit ears.  Meanwhile, TV executives remain stuck in the 1970's, when the three networks still owned most of America's entertainment options. But even as I'm loathe to admit it myself, times have indeed changed.  Today, we have gaming consoles, a plethora of Internet diversions in addition to Hulu, NetFlix and movies on demand, TiVo, and even digital books.  Typing this out, I just realized I haven't watched one single hour of prime-time network programming in several years.  And I used to be one of those Americans who fastidiously worked his schedule around his favorite shows.

If even I have changed my viewing and entertainment habits, what are the chances millions of Americans have also already done so?  And what should that be telling the stodgy broadcast executives still living in the era and aura of The Cosby Show and Monday Night Football? Maybe Hulu isn't the only answer to what ails the TV world, but it certainly doesn't seem to need a re-work to make it more like conventional analog entertainment.  But that's what increasing the number of commercials and charging more fees would do.

In so many unfortunate ways, we live in a vastly different world that even a few years ago.  Hulu's owners should be glad Internet viewers are still willing to sit through even interactive commercials on the website when you consider that plenty of pirated videos can be easily obtained... for cheaper than free.  Without any revenue going to the networks. One of the things that sank the music industry was the realization on the part of millions of ethics-challenged consumers that with digital technology, illegally-copied songs sound the same as the original.  Gone are the days when you needed first-generation versions of a videotape or soundtrack to get decent audiovisual quality.  That's not a threat - it's an immoral reality.  But the TV suits apparently don't want to admit it.

Losing Hulu's Moolah Train?

Don't those folks at Fox, NBC, and Disney kinda sound like me?  Resistant to change, unable to process the new reality they have to deal with?  Unwilling to take a few risks and give their new Hulu concept the benefit of the doubt?

And like a lot of us, they want their money from Hulu now; they don't want to nuture it into something for which a new crop of entertainment consumers can develop a loyal affinity.  But isn't that one of the bonuses that Hulu could bring to the analog broadcasting kings?  Take my own experience with Hulu:  I don't watch broadcast TV any more, but I will settle into a comfy chair with my laptop to watch Mary Tyler Moore and The Bob Newhart Show.  If Disney, NBC, and Fox were smart, they'd develop an algorythm based on the viewing habits of Hulu vistors like me, and use that data in developing new shows for prime-time broadcasting that might appeal to us.  They wouldn't be using focus groups or arbitrary data, they'd be using hard-core facts from Hulu's own site as their proof that, based on what we've watched on Hulu, consumers might give network TV another try - if their products suit our interests.

Of course, for most of us who've ditched network TV, developing the quality that we pine for in the old shows may cost more time and money than the gold-digging network suits want to commit.

And maybe that's what's really bugging them: the fact that even they can't control the change sweeping over our society because of technology?

Well, I can understand that. But it's the real world, not a reality show.  At this point, network television still has a chance at controlling its amazing race of an extreme makeover.  Otherwise, they could be the biggest loser.


  1. Hey, I'm a big Hulu fan. I also think they've got a good thing going with the commercials. Relatively painless. Too bad my computer is virus-ridden and each commercial means I've got to add a buffering time of about ten minutes. Did you know that you can't watch Hulu ouside the USA? They restrict Hulu to American IP addresses - I've got some friend in Germany who aren't happy about being denied access. If someone has the same problem and runs into this blog you can check out http://mrvpn.com/hulu-vpn and it'll help you access Hulu anywhere.

  2. Sorry, my html is pretty bad, here's the link attempt again

    Hulu VPN


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