“Why in the world won’t they take my money?” – Hulu, iTunes, and the value of attention

Joshua Green / MIT

Since cutting the cable a few months ago, I have been relying a lot on Hulu, the recently launched joint venture between NBC Universal and News Corp., to make up the content deficit. Designed as a central distribution site to deliver “premium content” online, it draws together programming from NBC and Fox stables, as well as a smattering of material from Sony and Warner Brothers, and wraps it all up in a reasonably easy to navigate and simple to operate interface. A solution to having to pick through individual network sites in order to catch up on content, the service also provides a reasonably large and seemingly rapidly developing catalog of older material, meaning Saturday afternoons can be spent with back-to-back episodes of The A-Team and under-appreciated wonders like Total Recall 2070 (a Canadian/German co-production). As the online video market in the US becomes a little crowded, Hulu is impressive in both its simplicity and catalog, including full and regularly updated seasons of many current and past programs. But the site also reveals some of the frictions caused by the lumpy move of television towards a service more and more defined by first-order commodity relations, and the adjustment of television’s organizational and audience modes in turn. A brief glance across the comments left on the service point to some of the expectations audiences bring about the value of attention and viewership outside of the broadcast sphere.

Hulu banner

Hulu.com banner

Hulu sits somewhere between broadcast and video-on-demand models of television. Advertiser supported, the service inserts usually a single 30-second advert into each of the commercial breaks structured into American programming. Each program is presented as sponsored by a particular advertiser, meaning one advertiser per program appear in these breaks (often, annoyingly the same commercial). This porting of the advertising model of broadcast television, however reduced, is an attraction for companies such as General Motors, who see Hulu as something of an extension of their broadcast spend (Dana and Steel, 2008). The service provides advertisers with a ‘safe’ space, an antithesis to sites that rely on user-created video, which brings with it risks in terms of quality and appropriateness of content — on Hulu there are guarantees the materials won’t offend any more than prime-time television.

This advertising model also provides the kind of direct connection between television content and online advertising dollars some media companies, NBC among them, found lacking on YouTube. Much like Viacom (Becker, 2007), NBC it seems became convinced the promotional value of having content on YouTube did not outweigh the financial returns gleaned from the revenue-sharing deals Google was offering (Broache and Sandoval 2007; Garritty, 2007; Kornitschnig, 2007). Frustrated at having to police content and seeing ad dollars not coming exclusively back to the rights holder, NBC committed to developing Hulu as an “official” alternative, where rights holders have complete control over the appearance of clips (rather than needing to take responsibility for their disappearance) and where third parties don’t intersect the revenue streams — an issue that also contributed to NBC severing its relationship with Apple’s iTunes service in 2007 (Barnes, 2007). These three factors — the perception Hulu is an official alternative to YouTube, that rights holders are responsible for the distribution of content across the service, and that the service might fill the void left by NBC’s withdrawal from iTunes — seem to influence the perceptions some viewers bring to the site, and the value they ascribe to their attention.

Organized around an on-demand model, viewing the advertisements is often seen by viewers as direct payment for access to programming on the site. Television audiences have, of course, long been aware of viewing ads as the ‘payment’ for television content, but this relationship seems foregrounded on Hulu. Many of those commenting point out that they would happily offer more attention in exchange for content, particularly anywhere seasons are incomplete. Writes one viewer:

I’ll put up with more ads if it means getting this content [previous seasons] added. You should create a ad watch vs. rating for show system. Just don’t overload the ads.

Similarly, some viewers point to their attention as an indicator of a market force that should be acknowledged, especially where little more than a collection of ‘clips’ from programs appear:

Why would we want to see a fraction of our favorite shows when we can download them for free? The reason I use your service is convenience, and clips are not convenient. If you want to sustain your advertising revenue I suggest you get more full episodes. THE USERS HAVE SPOKEN!

Regularly, viewers point out that Hulu is competing with ‘free’, and that the bargaining chip Hulu possesses is access to official copies. While the content offered might be of higher quality and assuredly legal, the real point of differentiation for the service is episode duration:

No full episodes = bad. If I wanted to see excerpts, I’d go to youtube.

Remarks such as these turn up regularly, although they don’t dominate the comments on the service, many of which review or discuss the respective programs (the only place to leave a comment is a section labeled “User Reviews”), or offer some praise to the service for making content available. It is also not uncommon to find a commenter pointing to the market logics of DVD distribution as a reason only a limited amount of content is available, though it is usually in a tone that suggests Hulu is ultimately under serving the audience, in this case, in order to preserve another, more valuable market.

I can afford cable monetarily, but simply won’t spend 20 minutes of every hour watching commercials—it’s simply not worth it. I’m happy, though to pay $1.99 to watch an episode without commercials. Happy, that is, until Bravo yanked Project Runway off of iTunes. Seriously, how much does Bravo make off of a single viewer? Why in the world won’t they take my money to watch a show?

These complaints, of course, are not new, and I don’t wish to suggest Hulu has in some way produced this attitude. Ratings systems and audience measurement are not democracies nor true free markets, and to a certain extent, the idea of being a slighted viewer in a marginal audience segment, the value of whose viewership is ignored, is somewhat fundamental to the television audience experience. If anything, Hulu merely makes this experience visible by providing an avenue alongside insubstantial schedules where the audience can speak back. Where previously these activities took place in lounge rooms and on Internet forums, all Hulu does is bring them into direct contact with the program itself.

At the same time, however, there seems to be a suggestion undergirding these comments that the service, given its official status, is bound to respond to the market. Lucas Hilderbrand (2007), writing about the disappointment of finding content removed from YouTube, suggests expectations for availability have been extended and exaggerated by “[t]he Internet, Google, and YouTube,” such that “[e]xpectations for access have developed into a sense of access entitlement” (p. 50). While I’m not sure I would go so far as to suggest a sense of access entitlement, certainly looking at negative comments on Hulu reveal an expectation of access and demands of availability. In one sense, these viewers seem to be holding the entertainment industry to its message that digital distribution needed to be legitimated through a business model. Rather than routing around official sources, these audience members are using the currencies they’ve been prescribed to go through the front door and ultimately finding them lacking. Maybe had the industry not criminalized file-sharing and the redactional (see Hartley, 2007) activities of YouTube, some audiences would be more forgiving.

These patterns of relation reveal mixed messages about the value of audience attention and Hulu certainly isn’t alone in sending them. CBS’ recent decision to resurrect post-apocalyptic drama Jericho after a determined and attention-grabbing fan campaign suggested initially that perhaps non-broadcast audiences were enough to influence the economics of the industry. After all, the myth goes that Jericho had been especially popular with DVR viewers and those using CBS’ Innertube service (Wyatt, 2007), and a fan campaign was enough for CBS to recognize they were out there. No sooner had the program been revived, however, were fans told that in order to show their continued support they would need to transform into a different sort of viewer – the regularly-scheduled-at-8pm-kind planted in front of the broadcast. Not just that, but they would need to encourage others to join them. Adding insult to injury, fans were offered a somewhat compromised second season, with a smaller cast and less sophisticated production.

Jericho promotional image

Jericho promotional image

That Jericho didn’t survive season two should come as no surprise; the program was ultimately made dependent upon none of the audiences who made it popular in the first place. Indeed, it would seem that the network itself ultimately disavowed the very modes of attention that supported the show and characterized the viewers who rallied to bring it back. Similarly, there is a sense at times on Hulu that audiences who are doing everything that they’re asked are ultimately being ignored.

This is, of course, too broad a perspective on Hulu; relationships between the site and its viewers are much more complex than an ignored and demanding audience and broadcasters defending existing revenue at the expense of new. While the value of online advertising is on the increase, particularly in relation to traditional television spending, the industry is still organized according to a series of logics and practices that privilege first-run broadcast economics. This is a fact audiences are aware of; even if they don’t fully appreciate the constraints such logics and conditions might place upon networks. Yet the broadcast model doesn’t wholly fit the patterns of audienceship across the site, and we need to rethink the way audience attention is accounted for, and the expectations of behavior imposed by the adaptation of broadcast models to the online space.

Works Cited

Barnes, Brooks (2007) “NBC Will Not Renew ITunes Contract,” The New York Times, 31 August.

Becker, Anne (2007) “YouTube to Viacom: We Will Pull Your Clips,” Broadcasting and Cable, 2 February.

Broache, Anne and Greg Sandoval (2007) “Viacom sues Google over YouTube clips,” CNET News.com, 13 March.

Garritty, Brian (2007) “Video Screen Goes Dark For Nbc-Youtube Channel,” New York Post, 23 October.

Hartley, John (2007) TV Truths, London: Blackwell.

Hilderbrand, Lucas (2007) “Youtube: Where Cultural Memory And Copyright Converge,” Film Quarterly, 61(1), pp.48-57.

Karnitschnig, Matthew (2007) “Viacom Orders Removal Of Videos From YouTube,” The Wall Street Journal, 3 February.

Wyatt, Edward (2007) “CBS Revives ‘Jericho,’ With a Plea to Fans,” The New York Times, 9 June.

Image Credits:
1. Hulu.com banner
2. Jericho promotional image

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4 comments

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  • You touch on a topic of huge relevance in the post-Writer’s Strike moment —

    When the strike first began, a number of critics (Nancy Franklin at The New Yorker, amongst others) held up The CW’s *Gossip Girl* as evidence of the writer’s grievances concerning online viewership — here was a show that garnered modest, at best, traditional viewership numbers, but was attracting a huge “alternative” audience — it was the #1 downloaded show on itunes for weeks running, and was the most streamed show on The CW website. Its audience, of course, was mostly teens, watching online, or on ipods — which made them all the more valuable, albeit relatively uncountable.

    Somewhat similar to Jericho, The CW decided to renew Gossip Girl (despite its relatively abysmal ratings) because of its success, with execs citing a need for novel means of measuring audience attention. Ultimately, the case of Gossip Girl proves not only that audiences are watching (perhaps exclusively) online, and that writers should be compensated accordingly, but that networks should also pay attention to, and respond in kind, to the ways that audiences “naturally” seek their programming. What if The CW were to yank Gossip Girl from itunes, cease to stream it, and prevent teenage girls from passing viral videos of their favorite characters making out in the back of a limo? (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kM7o_DB4nmc)

    Wouldn’t such a scenario, as it seems is the case with Jericho, demonstrate a profound mis-reading of audience, its tolerance of a certain level of commercial intrusion, and its continued fandom and series devotion?

  • Thanks for an interesting column. I have never heard of this site, but I enjoy being able to watch television online as well as on television. What I find more valuable than the current shows available through the site is the access to older shows that are difficult to find anywhere else.

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