Last week, I wrote what I thought was a pretty innocuous article about how good Hulu has become since it introduced its "ad-free" tier. (The "ad-free" label is a point of contention, as seven separate shows have two ads per episode at that subscription level, leaving some to argue the service should be called "ad-lite" or something. I think the fact that well over 99.99 percent of Hulu programming really is ad-free at that level earns the ad-free distinction, but quibble if you want.)
Over the weekend, the article became much less than innocuous. It became proof of my own role in active media collusion to promote an inferior product.
For the record, Vox is not owned by the same company as Hulu (nor is it owned directly by Hulu, as this headline claims). But we'll get to that in a minute.
I can't prove to you that Hulu is superior to other video-streaming services, because that is simply my opinion. But I can tell you I watch hours of Hulu every day, whereas I watch Netflix a couple of times a week. I can tell you that in the course of researching my review of Hulu, I was consistently surprised by the depth and breadth of its programming — and by how thin on the ground Netflix's programming has become (though I expect that will change once the company's new Disney deal begins in 2016). And I can tell you how many fellow culture writers agreed with me, both publicly and privately, that Hulu had vastly improved.
But I ultimately can't convince you of my opinion, because it's mine. If you prefer Netflix or Amazon or Fandor on the basis of content, curation, or technology, great. Be happy with your life choices!
Meanwhile, I can prove to you I'm not at the center of a vast media conspiracy.
Are Hulu and Vox Media owned by the same company?
No. This is the most common version of the argument floating around Twitter and Reddit, and it's false. Both Hulu and Vox Media share NBCUniversal as a significant but minority shareholder. (Hulu is a privately held company with three main investors — NBC, ABC, and Fox. Vox Media is a privately held company with many investors, which you can read more about here.)
One could conceivably make the argument that since shareholders are technically the owners of companies, NBCUniversal is a part owner of both Vox Media and Hulu. And sure! I can see that. But the relationship is sufficiently distant, partial, and arms-length that we left it out of the Hulu story — as do most media companies with a similar second-degree relationship to Hulu.
Take, for instance, Grantland, which has very stringent policies for disclosing that it is owned by ESPN, which is owned by ABC, which is, in turn, owned by Disney. Grantland does this anytime it publishes anything slightly related to any of those three companies. However, ABC is also an investor in Hulu, and whenever Grantland writes about Hulu, it doesn't bother to disclose that link. It doesn't need to. The relationship between the two companies is so distant as to be inconsequential.
In that same vein, my writing — and other Vox Culture writing — doesn't feature constant disclosures of our link to NBCUniversal when it's incidental to the story.
When is it necessary to disclose a media company's ownership and business relationships alongside the content it publishes?
Beyond Hulu — which, again, NBC doesn't own — our policy at Vox.com is that if we're reporting directly on NBCUniversal's business practices, we disclose the relationship. For an example of this in practice, see this article.
But when we're writing about individual NBCUniversal products — and especially when we're writing a review or something like that — we usually don't disclose the relationship. The reasons for this are threefold.
- First of all, the media landscape is complicated. When I say I really like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, most people don't bat an eye, because that's a Fox show, not an NBC show, right? Well, not exactly. Though it airs on Fox, it's produced by NBCUniversal, which owns all back-end rights to the program and stands to make the most money off it if it lasts long enough to hit syndication. So who's more important to the long-term future of Brooklyn Nine-Nine? At this point, I would argue Fox, but I could see the opposite argument having just as much validity. Either way, however, I don't sit down and consciously consume Brooklyn Nine-Nine as an NBC product, even though I know it is one.
- Functionally speaking, my relationship to NBCUniversal is the same as it's been for years. I get access to the same screeners, interview opportunities, and movie screenings as other entertainment journalists — in fact, in many cases I have far less access than other entertainment journalists. If this relationship were to shift, it would be most likely to impact Vox's decision in this regard, but so far, it hasn't.
- Most importantly, we really do believe that you, as the reader, will understand when you're reading a review that's inherently biased. In some ways, my positive review of Crimson Peak, a Universal release, is more suspicious than other articles I've written. It's not a movie with stellar reviews, and the piece is a deliberate pushback against its more negative reviews. But because the article is obviously couched as a review, readers go into it expecting it to be just my opinion — and whether that's influenced by my love of Guillermo del Toro films (as it is) or the Universal connection (as it isn't) doesn't matter.
But set aside all of that for a moment and consider how rarely you watch something because it's produced by a particular studio or network. Yes, there are exceptions: Pixar and Marvel have their rabid fans, and you'll certainly find fans of, say, HBO out there. But how many people get really excited for the next Warner Brothers release, or the next show that's going to air on CBS? To those of us who cover the industry, that information might mean something, but a good movie is a good movie, no matter who made it.
We don't believe our reviews — positive or negative — require that level of disclosure. And the Hulu piece is very much a review; it's functionally no different from saying "ABC is the best broadcast network" or "FX is the best basic cable network," both of which are statements I also believe.
It's not as though this practice is set in stone. I was convinced by people both within Vox and outside it that this article about cable bills required a disclosure, even though I personally felt the connection between Comcast (which owns NBCUniversal) and Vox was distant enough that a disclosure was unnecessary.
But even if I were convinced a disclosure was necessary in a discussion of programming specifically produced by NBCUniversal, I doubt I'll change my mind in terms of the company's connection to Hulu in the future (unless you count this article as a several-thousand-word disclosure, in which case, points for grasping the irony).
So why was this Hulu review received so differently from a movie review?
The most trenchant and frequent criticism of the piece on Reddit has been the notion that my article must obviously be an advertisement because Hulu's technical inferiority to Netflix is so pronounced as to be undeniable. And this is true! The technical experience of watching Netflix is superior to the technical experience of watching Hulu, as I noted in the piece.
This plays into the belief that a review of a tech product — which is how a lot of people classify Hulu — can be "objective" in a way that a movie review can't. With a tech product, you can compare back-end statistics, or count up the number of versions available, or find various bugs and flaws in the software.
But I don't watch a streaming site for superior picture quality. I have a Blu-ray player for that. I'm much more interested in the number of quality programs each service has, and that's where Hulu blows Netflix away. Hulu lags behind Netflix in original program development, but it's either competitive or an obvious winner in other areas, like the quantity and quality of its acquisitions, both foreign and domestic.
Netflix has some hardcore fans out there. And I'm one of them! The service has a great interface, and its original programming development is ahead of Amazon and Hulu (though not as far as it might boast it is). But competition is good! Netflix was so far ahead of Hulu and Amazon for a while that it could coast. Now the gap has closed, and that's worth talking about.
Why did people start caring about this, anyway?
No, seriously. The "ethics in games journalism" movement that mostly existed as a front for angry misogyny is still around, still organized, and still hating on Vox Media, which publishes Polygon, a particular focus of Gamergate hatred. My Hulu review was up for days and days — and read by lots and lots and lots of media professionals — without anybody saying anything about a massive media conspiracy or a need for disclosure, but over the weekend it exploded, thanks to this tweet from a Gamergater:
No disclosure of the fact that Comcast owns both Hulu and Vox of course pic.twitter.com/0Ng6OjqigD— Evil Shitlord (@mylittlepwnies3) October 25, 2015
A few hours later, it was on Kotaku in Action, Reddit's main hub for Gamergate discussion, and from there it spread to Reddit's technology page, and from there it jumped to Twitter, where it will be with us forever.
And almost all of the discussion initially accepted the incorrect statement from "Evil Shitlord" that Comcast owns both Hulu and Vox.
What's driving all of this?
For as irritating as I find this entire situation, as someone who's largely aware of himself and his own motivations, I also get it.
We live in an age when media consolidation means that a handful of companies own more and more of the places where we get our news. Initially, it seemed like the internet might break that tradition, but it increasingly isn't. Disney bought a stake in Vice. NBCUniversal bought a stake in Vox Media and BuzzFeed. And so on.
And I get why that's frustrating, to be sure. But that media consolidation, as well as the web of personal and professional contacts any journalist accumulates over a career, means that constant disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest would turn articles into over-footnoted messes.
If you disagree with me about Hulu, fine, but if you've read me at all, you'll know my praise of the company goes back several years, even to when I was an unpaid blogger. It's entirely possible that on this particular issue, our tastes just differ and we care about different things, not that there's an evil media conspiracy designed to promote a false truth.
Questions about media consolidation are worth discussing, to be sure. But the odds that someone writes something that you disagree with because a distant corporate master is forcing him to promote another investment are, all told, remarkably low. Such a system would be inefficient at best and remarkably counterproductive at worst. More likely is that we just disagree, and that's okay. That's why everybody gets an opinion.