There's a marvellous quote at the end of Asher Moses' piece at the SMH about the inevitable launch of Hulu in Australia, which sums up the online VOD provider's international expansion fairly well.
Moses questions Quickflix founder, Stephen Langsford, about the impending arrival of Hulu in Australia. Lansford replied:
“I've heard speculation that Hulu will be coming to Australia 'soon' for the last three years.”
The speculation about Hulu has indeed been rife. Every few weeks it seems that there's another rumour, another slice of gossip that makes the lure of an overarching online video portal for all free to air networks in Australia (as well as international networks) to offer VOD entertainment just that little bit more enticing.
But it seems that the closer we get to a reality where we can watch any TV show we like whenever we like on demand, the less likely it is to happen.
Hulu filed for an Australian Trademark on March 29, a move that has fuelled the most recent round of speculation about an Australian launch. But no matter how many grains of information we have, we're still a long way away from enjoying the same experience as our US cousins do.
It all comes down to how licencing deals work. When an Australian network buys the rights to broadcast an international TV show in Australia, they can opt to pay for the digital rights as well, meaning that only they can show the program through their own video portals. The problem with that in Australia is that up until very recently, the free to air networks in Australia didn't really have any online portals to speak of. Even now, with Seven supporting catchup TV through Yahoo!7 Plus and Nine using FixPlay, neither service offers the exceptional usability of a service like Hulu, or even the ABC's iView.
But now that the networks do run online streaming platforms for catchup TV, why would they move to share revenue with the US behemoth, which is equally owned by Disney, Fox and NBC Universal? More than that though, why would they willingly share the content with a Hulu online when they have paid Hulu's same parent companies money to own the rights to show the program online in Australia?
The answers can obviously only be found after laboriously long negotiations, but that doesn't reckon in the fact that TV networks aren't exactly the most experimental of corporations. They know they make money from selling ads and sticking them in the most frustrating places of your favourite TV shows, and live week to week with scheduling, ignoring their viewers habits and striving for the highest possible ratings on a weekly basis.
According to the SMH article, Nine is the closest to signing a deal with Hulu, while Seven has dismissed the online service.
What this means is that whether the service launches now is largely irrelevant. Chances are it will happen - Asher tells us Hulu insiders have said it's definitely going to happen but isn't imminent - but when it does happen, it will unlikely have the support of all the Australian free to air networks. Given that each network has the online distribution rights for Australia for different programming, this means that even if Hulu does launch in Australia, we're unlikely to see a version of the service that can offer us the same flexibility and appeal as the US version. In other words, it will be gimped from the very beginning.
However, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't get excited. Compare a Hulu with programming from a single TV network plus international networks who haven't sld Australian online distribution rights, and you have a service still vastly superior to the Australian Catch Up TV offering currently available (outside of iView). If nothing else, history has shown us that the TV industry is ruled by dinosaurs who don't understand the fast-changing world of the internet, which means it's only a matter of time before younger blood comes in to give us what we all truly want - universal access to any television content on demand. And when that day arrives, I'm calling in sick.