July 31, 2013 12:40pm PT by Tim Goodman
Hulu's Arrival at TCA: Another Reminder That Times Are Changing
The thing that's easy to forget when talking about Netflix and Hulu and Amazon streaming services (and mixing in such chatter with talk of streaming devices like Roku or Apple TV or Chromecast), is that lost in painting the big picture about the future of television and what it will look like is that the vast majority of people currently consuming TV the traditional way have no idea what you're talking about.
And this has always been true of tech talk. You've got your early adopters and then the people who follow not long after that, then some stragglers driven by constant references via media driving them to participate. And once all of those people are in, guess what?
That vast majority is still not on board -- so we are all "early adopters" in their minds.
And that's the barrier that Netflix and Hulu and Amazon have to get past. But the inherent beauty in that issue is that when they do -- when they drag the average American into the digital age -- that's when profits are going to explode and real platform revolutions will take place.
Part of this disconnect was on display Wednesday, Day 8 of TCA, when Hulu presented as the first panel of the day at 8:30 a.m. The ballroom, sadly, was sparsely populated (and so Hulu wisely held off for a bit and then started). Eventually the room filled up to a more respectable level and it didn't look like a panel for some entity that sprang to life yesterday. After all, this is Hulu. A service that you should not only be signed up for but perhaps considering its pay-service, Hulu Plus.
On Thursday, the ballroom will be packed to uncomfortable tightness for the arrival of Fox, so there's your little slice of real-world analytics, which might bring comfort to those in standard broadcast networks.
But we are all of us -- viewers, creators, etc. -- on the cusp of bigger changes to come whether we know it or not. Hell, CBS' perfectly conceived summer series Under the Dome wouldn't even exist if CBS, considered the most staid (some might say savvy and restrained) of the broadcast networks, hadn't broken custom and fostered a deal with Amazon. Now it looks like CBS might be in business with Amazon for future seasons of the show and perhaps even more summer-only offerings where creative packaging is a must.
Look, the Average American will eventually seriously consider joining Netflix to stream exclusive content and do the same with Hulu as well. Those Average Americans will soon stop thinking it's weird that Amazon -- the place they go to buy all manner of online merchandise -- is creating television content in sort of the same way as NBC or ABC does. (Yes, each model is different in its specifics, but telling that to late adopters right now won't help. They still need to get to the point where they can say, "OK, I bought a device for this 'streaming' thing you're talking about and now I'm ready to try some shows from Amazon and Hulu.") Small steps, but the march is clearly on, as traditional perceptions of who makes a TV series crumble. No doubt people who hadn't had Netflix got it for House of Cards and Arrested Development. Their comfort level can only help Hulu.
Here's what also helps: Down here at the Television Critics Association, watching screeners for what's coming up over the next six months on the networks and cable channels, I haven't seen a fall comedy yet that's even in the same league as Moone Boy on Hulu. Think about that for a second. If part of what critics and TV reporters do is disseminate information that in turn can provide some kind of public service to time-strapped viewers, then the simple question of "What's the best comedy I should be looking for coming up next season?" culminates in an answer most won't expect: Moone Boy. On Hulu.
And it doesn't stop there because all six episodes are available to people right now -- not in the crowded fall launch of September. Better yet, a second season of Moone Boy has already been completed and will appear on Hulu later in 2013 (and a third has started filming). That takes away so many of the complaints and fears of the average viewer: worries about whether the show will be canceled are gone. Worries that it won't be renewed are gone. Worries that a DVR pile-up on certain nights and certain time slots will create mass confusion -- not an issue. Fear of Ye Olde Network Shell Game -- a show "sneaks" on Tuesday at 9 p.m. before moving it to its regularly scheduled slot on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. a week later, before getting pulled off for the holidays and returned to the schedule on Fridays at 9:30 p.m. -- are not in play.
That brave new world of what the future of television will look like is largely here, even though a big chunk of consumers/viewers haven't caught on to it. But they will. And it will be glorious for viewers, but a headache for networks and cable channels unless they, too, somehow get in the game (and many, like HBO and Showtime have mimicked that online platform freedom by deploying brilliant apps, just as service providers like DirecTV and Comcast improve their on-demand features).
For Hulu, ramping up to catch this explosion has been going on for years. Whereas the service used to just be centered on "last night's TV" -- you missed your favorite show and went to Hulu to catch it -- the company slowly morphed into a service that provides not only acquired content that others passed on or missed, but also stepped into the original series game.
As Hulu figures out that mix -- how much to spend buying a show that already exists like Moone Boy, versus creating, in partnerships, original series like The Wrong Mans or Quickdraw or The Awesomes -- it will become more of an essential player than it is right now (which is, even for late adopters, completely essential).
If being at the TCA sessions hammers home one thing, it's that there are an overwhelming number of original scripted series from myriad traditional players like cable and broadcast. Trying to gird home viewers for the onslaught is a necessary task. Those viewers have the tools -- a television, a cable or satellite subscription -- and the muscle-memory (where AMC and IFC and Sundance and FX can be found on the spectrum) to adequately handle the explosion of said offerings.
But just wait until using Netlfix and Hulu and Amazon become second nature to those same people. And I mean people who right this minute don't pay for Netflix, haven't even set up their free Hulu account, have no idea that already paying for Amazon Prime shipping allows them access to free TV and movie streaming options and who are, just now, bookmarking a page that explains the arrival of Chromecast.
When they convert? That's when the television of tomorrow arrives -- and the paradigm shift we've been talking about for ages finally happens.