Hulu is not dead to me

CNET has good interview with Eric Garland, the CEO of media measurement company Big Champagne, talking about file sharing and the future of film and television.

Most of his points aren’t new, but they’re delivered in less-hysterical terms than you often see.

The music people used to say, “How can you can compete with free?” And now you ask anybody in digital music and they’ll tell you, “I’m just trying to compete effectively with free.” They’ve embraced the very condition that up until very recently they said they would reject. I’m telling you, you are going to compete with free. Sometimes you’re even going to win, once you make the commitment to living in the marketplace as it is and not as you wish it were or as it once was.

Garland shares my sympathy for international viewers, who are often told to wait months for movies that the U.S. gets on day one. If you don’t give the audience a convenient and legal way to watch something, they’re going to find a convenient and illegal way. And it’s hard to blame them.

I have much less sympathy for users outraged that Hulu is going to start charging. “Hulu is dead to me” is the common refrain on messageboards and Twitter.

But here’s the thing: you don’t have a god-given right to free shows, just as you can’t walk into Barnes and Noble and start shoving books in your backpack. We’ve conflated the ideas of intellectual liberty and zero cost into a big bundle of entitlement.

While I disagree with many points in Chris Anderson’s Free , he makes a useful distinction between flavors of “free.” I’d argue that movies and television need to be free as in accessible — by a global audience on their timetable. But you can have that kind of free without setting the price at zero. In fact, charging for something often makes it more accessible, by making it economically worthwhile to keep the systems running.

Right now, Hulu competes very effectively with free torrents on price. But if it chooses to move to a subscription model, it can ultimately offer more content at higher speeds, allowing it to compete better with free torrents on access.

Netflix is often seen as a tremendous bargain, offering a vast selection of movies and TV on demand for a low subscription price. That’s what Hulu may morph into, and that’s not cause for alarm.

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