It looks like video-streaming site Hulu may start charging its viewers next year. The dire news arrived via News Corp. executive Chase Carey, who made the suggestion this week at Broadcast & Cable's OnScreen Media Summit in New York.
As we all know, Hulu is a great place to watch network TV shows for free. Well, sort of free, actually, since viewers are forced to watch commercials — you can't fast-forward past them — during the shows. That's a fair price to pay, one that mimics the decades-only broadcast TV model. Unfortunately, Hulu isn't turning much of a profit these days, and its owners — News Corp., NBC Universal, Walt Disney Co. and Providence Equity Partners — want viewers to pay up.
There's little doubt that Hulu will evolve into some sort of fee-based service, but what's the right approach? Putting up a pay wall overnight would be a disaster; nearly all of today's Hulu viewers would walk away, never to return.
Alternatives? Here are five approaches that might get me to pay:
1) Hulu-On-Steroids: A video subscription service that provides every episode of every TV show or movie ever made. OK, I'm exaggerating a bit, but Hulu's content library would have to be huge. If I wanted to catch the fifth episode of the second season of Mannix, Hulu should have it. Suggested name: Hulu Unlimited.
2) A package deal with my cable provider: I'm already overpaying for my cable TV plan, which includes dozens of channels I never watch and don't want. If Hulu Unlimited were added to my cable package, I might be interested. Then again, I don't want to pay extra. The suits can figure out who gets what.
3) Original programming: Today's Hulu is a good place to catch up on recent network shows I might have missed. Why not produce Hulu exclusives? That's how HBO and Showtime work. For this model to work, however, Hulu would also have to improve its video quality, and offer subscribers an easier way to stream its shows to the living room HDTV.
4) No commercials — ever: To be honest, commercials in Hulu shows don't annoy me all that much. I can mute them, walk away from the PC for a minute, stretch, check email — whatever. That said, a no-ad version of Hulu, combined with some of my wish-list features above, would be appealing.
5) Some free; some fee: Hulu's caretakers will likely adopt this pay-per-view model. The free service will continue much as it does today, but you'll have pay for some shows. Want to catch the last season of 30 Rock? Hulu has it, but for a fee. I'd probably pass on the paid content and keep watching the free stuff.