clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The free TV on the internet experiment died years ago. Now Hulu is burying it.

The TV guys really don’t want to give away their best stuff, so Hulu’s site and apps will go subscription-only.

Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins
Asa Mathat for Vox Media
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Hulu launched in 2008 with a big, exciting proposition: It let you watch some of the biggest shows on TV the day after they ran on TV, "anytime, anywhere. For free."

Remember those Alec Baldwin ads?

Now that era is over: Hulu is turning off the free service it runs on its site and apps, and will push you to sign up for one of two subscription services it offers.

Next year it will add a third paid option, which will basically replicate cable TV, but on the internet.

At one point in Hulu’s history, this would have been a big deal. But the truth is that almost since the company’s launch, its TV conglomerate owners — first Comcast’s NBCUniversal* and 21st Century Fox, later joined by Disney/ABC — have been uncomfortable with the notion of putting all their stuff up for free on the web. And they’ve been trying to back away from it for many years.

Years ago, for instance, Hulu’s owners started making it harder to see last night’s shows for free on Hulu or anywhere else, and started "windowing" them unless you had a pay TV or Hulu subscription.

By now that’s become a standard: If you’re not paying, you have to wait eight days after a show’s original air date to see it on Hulu, or on sites Hulu syndicates to, like Yahoo.

And last week’s news that Time Warner was buying a chunk of Hulu was another indicator that Hulu’s old model was toast, since Time Warner hated Hulu’s old model.

So today’s news is just formal confirmation that the TV guys really don’t want to give away their best stuff for free.

Or, more precisely, they’d prefer that you pay twice when you watch their stuff: Once with your credit card, via some kind of pay TV subscription, and again with your attention, when you watch the ads they sell.

That dual revenue stream is the key to the considerable remaining strength the TV Industrial Complex has. And it’s one that many other content businesses are trying to replicate.

The fact that the TV guys were willing to experiment with no-strings-attached free TV at all shows you just how freaked out they were about the power of YouTube, which in 2007 and 2008 looked liked it was going to swallow the entertainment business completely. Hulu was built, first and foremost, as a hedge against Google’s video site.

Today YouTube is still huge, but it’s certainly not the only video game in town. Perhaps you’ve heard about Facebook?

And while most people watch YouTube for free, YouTube would like to change that, too. It has already launched one subscription service, and would like to launch another one next year, which would closely replicate pay TV, but on the internet.

Sound familiar?

*NBCUniversal owns a minority stake in Vox Media, which owns this site.

Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins talks subscriptions and ads in February

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.