Hulu is not the future of television

by Paul William Tenny

hulu.jpgThat's the simple answer to Michael Agger's question from Slate this week. It took me a while, but I was finally able to wrap my head around the question and the how I arrived there was surprisingly easy and in retrospect painfully obvious. Replace Hulu generically and the question is: Is the Internet the future of television?

No, and here's why.
If you have high-speed access with cable or DSL and your provider hasn't severely oversold capacity, you probably think there's no barriers between replacing broadcast television with the Internet other than people moving the content from one place to the other. That couldn't be further from the truth. While your home connection may be fast enough to stream decent looking video without too many hiccups, it's not anywhere close to being fast enough to deliver standard-definition quality video, much less high-definition. You may think it looks close, but as far as the kind of bandwidth that goes into broadcasting it, there's simply no comparison.

Even a fast cable connection is going to top out at around 5-6mbps. DVDs are encoded at between 6 and 9, and that's probably more compression than you get from digital cable or standard satellite. HD is an order of magnitude greater.

If you consider that your fast home connection couldn't handle the same kind of quality you get on TV, then you're accepting a step downward in quality in the transition which most people won't easily accept. If you ignore that, then consider the same constraints apply for the server that is streaming the video. If your home connection is eating 2mbps to stream the latest episode of Lost, then imagine how much bandwidth CBS is using to stream it to a couple of thousand people. Now remember that Lost is seen by 8-14 million people every evening, and you'll begin to understand how drastically under powered the Internet is when it comes to trying to replace broadcast television.

And that's 1 show on a single "channel." To replace TV, you'd have to stream hundreds of shows at the exact same time, and even advanced technologies like multicasting won't be able to compensate.

Peer-2-Peer isn't the solution either, where in fact it would be even slower since there is even less bandwidth on the outer edges of the network than at the core where these servers currently live.

Broadband availability in the United States is only in the 50-60% range today, and there is little chance that number will go up significantly in the future. Corporations in the United States are not required by law to service rural areas, yet over half the country's population live in these areas. It is not cost efficient for them to deploy DSL or cable in areas that don't already have the infrastructure or population density to justify it, and that simply isn't going to change as the years march forward.

If the Internet replaced television entirely, the TV audience would shrink by well over 50% and those people would be gone. Permanently.

Watching TV on a computer monitor is uncomfortable at best. Desk chairs are simply no match for a good couch, and having to sit so close to the smaller display is bad for your eyes. It also rules out a group experience, which is where I get at least half my enjoyment from. I like watching something great like Firefly the first time, then watching it again with friends and family. How often do you sit down to your computer to watch the most recent Lost with anyone?

What about feature films? Even if the bandwidth problem could be solved (even with nobody actively trying to solve it) you just aren't going to enjoy it as much. There really aren't any good media management interfaces for PC's either, which is going to be a continuing gripe as far as the eye can see since I doubt all the competing players are going to unify on a single interface where all the streaming media comes together.

Rights management
One of the most useful parts of television for me now is having a DVR. Media owners are making it as difficult as possible to have the equivalent for online viewing. They don't want you to save or even own media anymore, they'd be perfectly happy if all you did was stream it (even though they don't have the infrastructure to do that, and won't.)

I will give up the ability to record things and watch them later over my cold, dead body.


These are just some of the problems off the top of my head, and these problems should have made the conclusion obvious: the Internet cannot replace broadcast television. Not now, not unless every home in the United States has the equivalent of Verizon's FIOS service. Because of a complete lack of local competition, that will never happen.

That doesn't mean however that the Internet won't play a crucial as-of-yet unknown role in televised entertainment. I personally believe there will be many more instances of made-for-Internet shows like Quarterlife and Sanctuary discovering an audience online, and then making the jump to a broadcast network or cable after the idea is proven. It's cheaper for the networks, allows more creative control for the authors, and it plainly won't flood the Internet out of existence.

That also isn't to say that syndication won't move entirely from TV to the Internet, if not just so the networks can avoid paying writers and other creative artists. That 17-day window is disgusting and absolutely must go before it's exploited beyond repair.

Also, just for the hell of it, here's why I actually love Hulu: an embeded full-length episode of Battlestar Galactica -- the fourth season premier.

Nifty, eh? But it still can't beat that couch.
in Digital Media, Streaming Video, Television


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