One of the things that has allowed Hulu to compete in the streaming video subscription market is the fact that it offers users the ability to watch some currently airing shows shortly after they’ve premiered on TV. But a new report claims that if content powerhouse Time Warner Inc. has its say, even Hulu subscribers may have to wait a long time before seeing recently aired shows.
Time Warner Inc. — not to be confused with its former subsidiary Time Warner Cable — has been talking to Hulu about purchasing a portion of the streaming service, which is currently a joint venture of Comcast (NBC), Disney (ABC), and 21st Century Fox.
Many currently airing shows from those three networks are available to Hulu subscribers shortly after they’ve aired — sooner then they appear on those networks’ websites. And unlike the network sites, which often only offer streaming access for a few weeks after an episode has aired, Hulu often has most of, if not the entire, current season.
Depending on who you ask, that’s either good for TV or it’s a curse. On the one hand, having the full archive of previous episodes allows newcomers to quickly catch up, rather than having to wait for reruns. This sort of binge-watching is why serialized dramas like Breaking Bad and Mad Men were able to gain audiences over time, as new viewers caught up to the story lines on Netflix.
On the other hand, critics of binge-watching say it is giving traditional TV viewers a reason to cut the cord and ditch basic cable. The Time Warner Inc. umbrella covers a wide range of these channels — CNN, TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network — that stand to lose carriage fees and ad revenue every time someone cuts the cord. And while Time Warner apparently believes it can make money selling online access to HBO without requiring basic cable, many of its other properties don’t lend itself as readily to binge-viewing.
According to the Wall Street Journal, that’s why Time Warner is talking to Hulu about ultimately rethinking how the streaming service handles recently aired TV shows.
If Time Warner purchases a 25% stake in Hulu, the Journal’s sources say it wouldn’t want to offer the quick online access to new episodes that the site’s current partners provide. The potential investors are not yet demanding that Hulu ditch current-season episodes right away.
In the long-run, per the Journal, Time Warner would rather use Hulu to push users to on-demand and network websites for currently aired shows. That means they would likely need to use a pay-TV provider login to see these episodes.
Earlier this year, Time Warner Inc. CEO Jeff Bewkes tried to downplay the threat of streaming services to traditional pay-TV.
“Netflix is good, but not that good,” Bewkes said at the time. “The pessimism in the market about the sector is overdone — our industry will figure out how to take content and sell it on demand.”
To us, reducing the availability of currently airing shows would seem to strip away much of the value and distinction that Hulu offers to users. The service has been attempting to add more original programming, along with movies that aren’t interrupted by ads. It has acquired rights to older favorites like Seinfeld, but even so its subscriber base is only about 1/5 the size of Netflix.
Time Warner and other content companies have the right to license their content however they please, but this might be like trying to smoosh the genie back into the bottle. We doubt that removing current shows will have the desired effect of stemming cord-cutters. In fact, it might just lead people to cut the cord then figure out how to obtain pirated copies of the shows they want to watch.