Hulu and Wall Street Journal Suffering the Same Internet Growing Pains

 |  Includes: DIS, GE, NWS
by: Ashkan Karbasfrooshan

Hulu’s growing pains are emblematic of old media’s challenges and symptomatic of its pedigree.

Hulu is the free premium video site that was launched by News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWS) and NBC (NYSE:GE) and today also includes Disney/ABC (NYSE:DIS) as a third parent. A bit of a disclaimer: WatchMojo supplies Hulu with a plethora of videos across multiple categories.

Let’s first look at Hulu’s pedigree to understand why this script ending should not have come as a surprise to anyone.

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen?

According to Mediaweek:

Observers predict that the already complicated arrangement is likely to become more so, particularly given the prospect that NBC Universal may be sold to Comcast—which already operates its own online video site (Fancast) and has a markedly different philosophy regarding just how free TV content should be on the Internet.

I’ve always feared that what led to Hulu’s quick ascent - access to great content - would in turn mean that its media owners would eventually bicker and have divergent opinions on strategy. After all, while Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) YouTube is Big Media’s frienemy, over time, Big Media’s biggest enemies are one another as they vie for market share.

That is half of the equation.

Market Timing Never Works, You Have to Stick to Your Guns

Old Media makes decisions based on today’s conditions, which ensure that in a few years time, when the project has taken off, the conditions might no longer be conducive to their strategy and execution.

Case in point: Hulu decided from Day 1 to go free. This helped the company’s traffic take off: Hulu has soared from 12.5 million unique users in September 2008 to 38.7 million this past September, per comScore.

When the site launched, the decision to go free was smart. After all, the challenge was to change consumer behavior and thwart piracy.

To put things into context, in the summer of 2007, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. was seeking to acquire Dow Jones and there was talk of making Dow Jones’ Wall Street Journal website - the most successful paid content website in the world - go free to capture more advertising dollars.

At about the same time, Hulu was moving from an idea to beta to launch. Never was there talk of making consumers pay, not because Hulu’s media owners (which included Murdoch’s News Corp.) cared about user preference, but because it was an advertising play.

The Economic Meltdown Changed the Script

With the 2008 economic meltdown came a slowdown in advertising. This slowdown affected traditional media and advertising more than online. As a result, the downward pressure on media companies’ share prices accelerated and this forced them to reconsider the free, ad-supported content model.

Incidentally, there is no more talk of converting into a free site. in fact, Mr. Murdoch today talks of serving less users on his web properties but charging them to access the content.

Yes, times change.

Hulu is a great partner of ours. We really wish them well. The CPMs they command are so much higher than the industry standard that we wish that they grow as a site so we grow with them. But the story twists we read in the press should come as no surprise because media companies are impatient and desperate.

Have We Seen This Movie?

What they fail to realize, ironically, is that no matter what plan they hatch today to get users to pay, by the time these plans are implemented, the advertising market will return and they will find themselves on the inside of the pay wall looking out, once again finding themselves going against the grain.