Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Hulu's "Modern Family" Problem

Hulu’s pitch to viewers: We have all the great network TV shows you want to watch, for free. The pitch for Hulu Plus: Pay us $9.95 a month and you can watch even more episodes of those same shows.

But Hulu Plus can’t show subscribers all of the episodes of all the shows in Hulu’s catalog. Rights issues mean that certain shows will flit on and off the service, and it’s up to subscribers to figure that out for themselves.

Example: “Modern Family,” ABC’s award-winning hit sitcom, disappeared from both Hulu and Hulu Plus this summer after its first season. Now it’s back. But both services are only offering shows from the current season–there’s no way to go back and catch up on last year’s shows, even if you’re paying.

I think, but haven’t been able to confirm, that this has to do with DVD sales for the show, which is produced by News Corp.’s (NWS) 20th Century Fox. I’ve got queries into both Fox and Disney’s (DIS) ABC to try to confirm.

Meantime, here’s what Hulu has to say:

Yes, the first season of Modern Family is no longer on Hulu Plus. We acknowledge this can sometimes be confusing for TV fans, so we do all we can to provide as much advance notice as possible when shows are slated to come down. Below is an example from our Saturday Night Live show page on Hulu Plus. You’ll notice it says “New episodes are posted Sunday afternoons and are available for 17 days.” This is consistent across all our content.

Of course, we keep content on Hulu and Hulu Plus for as long as possible. We can’t offer a specific reasons why a particular video may be taken down, as streaming clearances differ from show to show.

And sure enough, if you head to each show’s Hulu page, you’ll find a different set of availabilities.

Regular Hulu users can only see the last five episodes of “The Family Guy,” for instance, while Hulu Plus subscribers can see all nine seasons. But even if you’re a paying customer, Hulu can only show you five episodes of “The Simpsons,” period.

Meanwhile, the last season of “Lost” fell off both the free and paid services last month, and the other five seasons will go away at the end of the year. Etc.

To be fair to Hulu, it’s certainly not the only service negotiating the frustrating rights/windows patchwork. Everyone who deals with digital media has to navigate this stuff. And none of it makes sense to viewers who just want to watch their shows, when they want to watch them.

But the patchwork is a bigger deal for Hulu, because the service’s primary pitch is that it’s a one-stop shop for all your TV viewing (or at least your broadcast TV viewing). Instead it’s really closer to a half-stocked Super Target: There’s a lot of stuff in there, but you still may not find what you need.

Hulu competitor Netflix (NFLX) offers lots of TV shows via its paid streaming service, too. But it pointedly doesn’t play up the presence of any particular show–Reed Hastings and company simply tell consumers that they’ll find shows they like.

But if you’ve ponied up $10 a month for Hulu Plus and find that you still can’t watch a show that aired a few months ago, you may not be cool with that at all.

Gaps in Hulu’s free service may not be as frustrating for users, because they’re not out any cash. But it is a problem for the joint venture as it ponders a public offering, premised on the notion that its TV partners/owners–ABC, Fox and GE/Comcast’s NBC–are in it for the long haul.

But if Hulu can’t tell users that it has all the rights it needs, how can it convince investors?

Meanwhile, a similarly confusing story:

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik