Some people like to have a drink at the end of a long day—or, if you’re Don Draper, in the middle of a long day—but me, I like to collapse on the couch with dinner and an episode of one of the way-too-many TV shows I follow.
This should not be hard.
But a few months back, when I fired up Hulu to catch up on USA’s White Collar , I noticed with surprise that there were far fewer episodes available for streaming than had aired on TV. What gives?
Licensing is what gives. On further inspection, I discovered a note on the show’s Hulu page:
The first two episodes of the current season will be available the day after air. Subsequent episodes will be available 30 days after their original airdates.
30 days? Who the heck is going to wait 30 days to watch a 40-minute television episode? Not me, that’s for sure.
To be fair, if I had a DVR, I could simply have recorded the show. But I don’t have a DVR. In fact, I don’t even have a cable or satellite TV subscription.
And that gets to the root of the problem. To put it bluntly, I'm the person the content providers and distributors fear: the man who wants to watch all his TV shows wherever and whenever he wants, without paying an arm and a leg for all those channels and shows that he doesn’t watch.
Right now, when it comes to watching TV shows and movies online, I’m at the whim of the content providers. But I'm also the future. And, while I may be in the minority right now, you may remember a time not so long ago when it was only a small minority that downloaded digital music—and we all know how that turned out.
Playing hard to get
In making their content hard to acquire through legitimate means, the movie and television studios are falling prey to the same classic blunder as the music industry—trying to enforce scarcity. After all, if people can only get your content from your prescribed sources, then you can enforce whatever price and terms you deem fit. It’s kind of the digital content equivalent of security through obscurity.
But the very nature of digital content is that it’s not scarce. I won’t go so far as to trot out the old—and frequently misquoted—adage about information “wanting to be free,” but digital content is undeniably easy to consume, easy to reproduce, and easy to transport. Too late, the producers have realized that they’ve built a beautiful sand castle for themselves—and the tide is coming in. And no matter how good the dams and barrier they build are, sooner or later everything’s going to come crashing down.
Of course, when technological measures fail—and if there’s anything we should learn, it’s that technological protection measures will always fail as long as someone has an interest in breaking them—companies move on to their next line of defense: lawyers and licensing agreements.
Close the doors, open the windows
Hulu’s not the only site to fall victim to this concept of the “availability window.” Earlier this year, Netflix struck a deal with Warner Bros. wherein new releases are not available for rental via streaming or DVD until 28 days after they go on sale in retail stores. In exchange, Netflix received access to a broader library of titles from that studio—and it ingratiated itself with the content providers. That’s a smart strategic move for Netflix, given that the content providers still hold all the cards, but it’s potentially frustrating for those consumers who aren’t interested in purchasing a movie they may only watch once.
If anything, it reminds me of a scene in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street, where Kris Kringle is instructed to “push” certain toys to children who haven’t made up their minds. It’s not so different from what the industry’s trying to do: By making the media exclusive to a single channel, even for a limited time, the producers hope to entice consumers into paying a higher price for something they don’t really want (and, it should be noted, on which the content producers reap a higher profit).
But unlike the innocent little tykes lining up for Santa Claus, the consumers who already have Netflix and Hulu are mostly a savvy lot. They’re likely going to wait for the movie or TV show to appear on their service of choice anyway. So the industry isn’t really losing sales—those people were never going to buy it to begin with. And it has the potential to backfire on the producers as well: If a title’s not available for streaming until a month after it hits retail (which coincides with the biggest advertising push), there's a good chance that consumer will have lost interest by the time it actually shows up. Now, instead of less money from that person, the studios are potentially getting no money at all.
While the availability window is one of the industry’s more prominent Byzantine licensing tactics, it’s far from the only weapon in its arsenal. Take Hulu Plus, the site’s $8-per-month subscription service: Paying the monthly fee entitles you to stream video from the site via the Hulu app on your iOS device, as well as on certain set-top boxes and video game consoles. Sounds reasonable, right?
However, there’s a “but” so big that you might want to alert Sir Mix-a-lot: Not all of the content available on Hulu’s Website is eligible to be streamed to those devices. So, even though you might be looking forward to catching up on the latest episodes of Fringe or Chuck or, yes, White Collar, you can only do so on your computer. If you’re browsing via a mobile app or set-top device, you’ll see a “Web Only” badge. Visit the site, and you’ll politely be told:
This show is available online at Hulu.com through your computer web browser. We do not have the rights to make it available on TV or mobile devices at this time—we continue to work on securing these rights.
As someone who has slapped down my $8 per month for Hulu Plus, I have to say I felt like a pretty big sucker when I realized that almost half the shows I watch can't be streamed to my iPad, iPhone, or Xbox 360. Yes, my money has entitled me to access content in more places, but not to the content I atually want to watch. Not to mention that being a Hulu Plus subscriber doesn’t eliminate the service's ads, either. It's like paying someone to paint your house, only to find that they just painted the front—and left their sign in your yard for months on end.