We all remember the ad campaigns. Alec Baldwin, Denis Leary and Seth McFarlane all revealed to us that they were secretly part of an alien race (a badly CGI-ed alien race not above whoring out for commercials, but I digress) who were stocking Hulu with an endless supply of TV shows in order to turn our brains to mush so that they could eat them.
However, the site’s billing as a one-stop shop for all of your television needs is a bit misleading. Restrictions from the networks on what content is available on the site and for how long have kept Hulu from living up to its brain-melting promise. Networks are still struggling to figure out how to deal with this newfangled Internet and its effect on how people watch television, so they aren’t comfortable giving their shows away for free online in a timely and convenient manner. I think it’s unfortunate though and it misses the bigger picture.
Due to tough economic times, I have been forced to embrace a more Amish lifestyle these days. I haven’t had to churn butter on street corners to make extra cash just yet, but I have had to look for ways to cut spending. One of the causalities of my thriftiness was my DVR. That means I only have two choices when it comes to keeping up on my favorite shows – watch them when they air or watch them online.
Now obviously, the networks would prefer that I watch their shows live. (Well, technically, they don’t really care if I watch or not, since I don’t have one of those Nielsen boxes on my TV, so there is no way of tracking my viewing habits for rating’s purposes.) Their livelihood depends on ratings – the ratings their shows garner determine how much they can charge for commercials during a given time slot. Sure, they run a 30-second ad on every commercial break on Hulu, but that money is nothing compared to what they are getting for 30-second spots in primetime.
Normally, this isn’t really an issue for me. Like I said, I’m trying to save money these days, so it’s not like I’m going out on the town every weeknight. I can usually sit in front of my TV and watch shows as they air. However, from time to time my school work or the occasional spur of the moment hookers and blow bender crops up and I am forced to turn to Hulu to catch the shows I’ve missed.
Now, in a perfect world, if I missed an episode of House or Psych or Sons of Anarchy, I could simply pop onto Hulu the next day and watch it. But, since the networks want to discourage me from watching online, these shows are released on the site on an eight-day delay. Now, in their mind, this move will convince me to always watch the show when it airs, but in reality it has the opposite effect. Because I have now missed one episode, I can’t watch the following week’s episode when it airs seven days later because I’m a week behind. And because every single episode is aired on this eight-day delay, I never get caught up. So if I miss the premiere, suddenly instead of simply watching one show on my computer, I am forced to watch all 12 or 22 episodes of that season on Hulu.
As I mentioned before, the other problem is in how many episodes the network makes available online at any given time. Over the summer, I was starved for entertainment, so I ended up raiding my brother’s DVD shelf and borrowing his How I Met Your Mother box sets. I was instantly hooked. I ended up plowing through the first three seasons in less than two weeks.
The problem was that season four of the show had just ended and wasn’t out on DVD yet. I went online to catch up, but CBS only had the last three episodes of the season available on their website (full episodes of How I Met Your Mother aren’t actually available on Hulu, only clips). I guess they wanted to force people to buy the DVDs to catch up, but thanks to horrible planning on their part, the season four box set was released yesterday, two weeks after the fifth season’s premiere.
So now I’m in a position where I have to rush through the season four box set while season five is going on. Presumably, if I don’t finish season four quickly enough, they will pull the first episode of season five off of their website and once again, I will be an entire season behind with no way to catch up.
I know this all comes down to money. Like I said, the networks depend on ratings to make money and they are terrified the Internet is going to ruin everything. And perhaps it will. The web has already changed the way we watch TV and the networks really aren’t sure how to adapt. Someday a change is going to come and things will be completely restructured. But until that day, they should work with the Internet instead of against it.
I’ve always believed that the best approach is to simply put out the best product you can. If you provide something people want to see, they will find you. People will watch your show live on TV if they enjoy it. The people who only watch your shows online are going to find a way to do it no matter what. Even if you don’t provide content to Hulu, they will still find an illegal site that streams your shows or they will download the torrent. They will find a way.
Meanwhile, you are screwing over people like me who would actually watch your shows on television if you work with me. I don’t particularly like watching shows on a tiny, grainy computer monitor or having a scene abruptly stop whenever the strength of my connection dips down too low. I have a beautiful high def TV that I would love to be using more.
So get rid of the eight-day delays and make full seasons available online. ABC already does this – you can watch every single episode of Lost on their website right now (and their video player is even better than Hulu’s). And NBC does this to some degree – they make shows like The Office and Chuck available the day after they air, but they don’t make all of the previous seasons available online. Everyone else should follow suit.
And, if I am completely wrong and making your shows available online ends up bankrupting you, I promise to set you all up with lucrative careers churning butter on street corners.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at email@example.com.