“Cord-cutters” — people who don’t subscribe to cable or satellite TV and instead get their shows through the internet, whether that means iTunes, Netflix, Hulu or (cough) less legal means — are the bane and the inevitable future of the television industry. Whether you’re a cable subscriber with a TV and DVR at home or you’re floating free with a tablet, everybody’s watching more television online these days. And if you’re willing to pirate a few things, you can get a reasonable approximation of having cable on your computer (live events like sports are a little trickier, but also possible).
But online ads aren’t nearly as profitable as on-air ones, pirated material doesn’t make money for channels at all and cable networks still get a giant portion of their earnings from cable operators like Time Warner, Cablevision and Comcast who pay to be able to carry them. If you’ve ever complained about why a network chooses or has been made not to put its shows online somewhere the next day, it’s because those MSOs are still their primary customer and reason for business, and those companies want real subscribers, not wannabes who do an end-run via web browser.
This is why it’s disappointing but not a total surprise to read the New York Post‘s report that Hulu is considering making its streaming service only accessible to people who are already cable customers, in the same way HBO Go exists for HBO subscribers. Hulu currently offers a lot of its content free and ad-supported, with the rest of it available for $7.99 a month. It’s quite a bit less than a basic cable package but also less complete — FX, for instance, chose not to stream this past season of “Justified.”
As the Post notes, “The move toward authentication is fueled by cable companies and networks looking to protect and profit from their content.” While the Fox, Disney and Comcast-owned Hulu has yet to make a statement about the development, it’s in line with similar plans floated by cable operators like TV Everywhere, a system announced by Comcast and Time Warner that would allow you to watch streaming and VOD shows on multiple platforms, as long as you’re already a paying customer.
Would you continue to pay for cable if you were only watching it on your laptop? Theoretically, what we’ve always been paying for is access, so it’s not that different an ask. But the proliferation of full episodes streaming online has made the idea of paying for a broad subscription a lot less appealing for a lot of people — having gotten accustomed to having things either be free or available a la carte, why would you want to go back to having to pay a large monthly fee that includes channels in which you may have no interest?
At least, as the Post points out, “the move toward authentication… could take years to complete.” In the meanwhile, Hulu continues to bulk up its own original programming, presumably as a draw to future audiences who may not have access to the network programming the site will only have available for cable customers. The site will have to hope for a serious breakout show if they’d like people to keep subscribing to their own monthly pay service for their own offerings.