In an unusual — and very welcome — case of transparency, Hulu CEO Jason Kilar this week posted a frank blog entry apologizing for removing several seasons of episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. This FX Networks’ comedy was pulled down at the network’s request, presumably because it hopes to build some momentum for it’s official Sunny site where many episodes can still be seen. Hulu viewers complained, Hulu asked FX for an extension, and FX granted it. (It may help that FX and Hulu are both connected to Fox, which owns the former and has a hand in the latter). The episodes are now back on Hulu through the 25th of January.
Two quick things to learn from this experience:
1 – We’re still making this up as we go along. FX, Hulu, and the viewers are all still very new to this idea of watching TV online. FX changed its mind half way through the season, Hulu is required to comply, and viewers are left picking up the pieces. Kilar’s approach — the frank apology — is as disarming as it is astute. That kind of transparency is helpful when negotiating the tricky bumps in a relationship. It doesn’t ultimately solve the problem, however, that content has been disappearing from sites for the last several months as content owners continue to change their minds about their strategies.
2 – Consumers feel like they hold the ultimate trump card: piracy. If you read the comments from Hulu viewers on the Hulu blog post, you’ll find that most of them — although pleased with Kilar’s openness — are more than willing to threaten piracy as a solution to the problem. This is the same kind of response I get from commenters on my blog when these issues come up. It’s hard to say whether they represent most of us — as I posted before, we know that only 10% of US adults have ever pirated video via bittorrent. But we also know that online piracy will only get easier (and better) until eventually the US will have to contend with it they way some other markets (like Korea, China, etc.) already have.
The comment I added on the Hulu blog is fairly direct: isn’t threatening piracy akin to telling your spouse that if he/she doesn’t want to be intimate with you that you’ll just sleep with someone else? I have a feeling it doesn’t encourage the behavior you really want! I have been in meetings with studio copyright lawyers when they hear of threats like that and it just blinds them to their more strategic alternatives. This may be one of the reasons that Netflix is succeeding in getting more and more content approved for its streaming service. The subscription model satisfies the studios’ desire to get paid and the consumer’s desire for a convenient, uninterrupted experience.