Hulu's Content Owners Are Missing A Major Opportunity This Summer

It’s no secret that summer is the season of terrible television, when networks flock to broadcast cheap reality TV and game shows that actually will turn your brain into a slippery pile of goo. Granted, there are a few gems out there (particularly on the cable networks), but for the most part TV fans are out of luck during the dog days of summer. At least, that’s the way things used to be.

Earlier this week I had something of an epiphany. Hulu, with its mountains of movies and prime-time TV shows, is the perfect answer to the summer doldrums. I’m finally free to catch up on those shows that my friends have been talking about for years, or at least watch the first few episodes of a show to see if it’s worth buying on iTunes or DVD. Eureka!

Unfortunately, when I went to catch up on a few shows the other night, I fell prey to a problem that’s nagged the site since it launched: content owners frequently impose bizarre restrictions on which content you’re allowed to watch on Hulu. The number of episodes available for each show vary wildly, and serial dramas will sometimes only offer a smattering of episodes scattered across a season, which makes it impossible to follow the story line. Hulu does its best to explain the situation to users with messages like “We are able to run five trailing episodes of this series”, but these bulletins don’t do much to ameliorate the frustration and apparent lack of logic. In short, it leads to a bad user experience on an otherwise highly-polished site.

A quick spin through the site reveals how bad the problem is. Rescue Me, which I’d heard was quite good, has a measly three episodes available, all taken from the end of the fifth season. Given that I know absolutely nothing about the show other than that Dennis Leary plays a firefighter, I figured this probably wasn’t the best way to get hooked. Fox’s popular serial drama 24 is currently offering a whopping five episodes, but these are taken from the middle of the first season (for those that haven’t seen 24, trying to pick up the story mid-season is an exercise in frustration). Battlestar Galactica is similarly limited. The list goes on.

In case it wasn’t obvious, Hulu has very little control over what it’s allowed to show users — it’s forced to bow to the whims of its content partners. And while it’s easy to point the finger at the studios and accuse them of simply being withholding, the reality is likely a bit more complicated. Distribution of this content is impacted by ‘windowing’ — the time periods when the rights to a show or movie belong to different mediums like Cable, syndication, or DVDs. So in some cases, studios really may have their hands tied.

That said, it’s hard to imagine that some of these media companies couldn’t do a better job with their licensing deals, and I suspect some of them really are withholding content because they’re afraid of undercutting their DVD and iTunes sales. In those cases, they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

If I can’t begin watching a show from the start, the odds of me watching it at all plummet. Sure, I could probably buy the first season on iTunes, but I’m not likely to pay for TV unless I’m quite certain I’m going to like it. Studios should be doing everything they can to introduce Hulu users to new shows during these summer months, perhaps going as far as enabling access to a show’s entire first season. Yes, I might wind up skipping buying the first season on DVD, but I’m also far more likely to go out and buy seasons 2-3 so I can continue watching from the comfort of my couch.