If one of the things you liked most about Hulu has been its simple, straightforward user experience - where TV programs could be quickly found and viewed - then Fox's new 8-day authenticated pay-TV window is going to feel like a big hassle. And if ABC and NBC, Hulu's other broadcast content partners and owners, adopt a similar approach to Fox, then it's really going to feel like going back to the dark ages of user experience.
Fox's authentication window means that during the first 8 days after an episode's air date only current subscribers of certain pay-TV services (DISH Network for now) or Hulu Plus can watch that episode. That in turn means that when searching for a new episode on Hulu, the resulting experience will be quite different than it has been.
Take Monday night's episode of "MasterChef." When searching Hulu for the program, this episode is listed first. But instead of just being able to click "play" and be all set, a new message indicates that only a 90-second preview is available for now. There is also a prompt to subscribe to Hulu Plus, and another prompt that this episode is available on the computer to DISH subscribers. Clicking on "learn more" brings up a page with a multi-step process to sign into Hulu, then connect to DISH, and then begin viewing. Since most Hulu users aren't DISH subscribers, most will unhappily bail out at this point. It's debatable even how many DISH subscribers will forge forward when confronted with this degree of effort.
Things are similar over at Fox.com, where a search for "MasterChef" also reveals Monday night's episode listed first, but with a lock icon displayed. A message says that the episode is available only to DISH Network customers until it unlocks in 8 days. Another link for "Don't see your provider" opens a form which allows the user to submit their information and have a message sent to their pay-TV provider requesting access (reminiscent of the famous "I want my MTV" campaign from the '80s). Lastly, a "Learn more" link brings users to a new Fox site, fox.com/watchnewepisodes where Klauss Heissler, the goldfish from "American Dad" narrates a 2-minute video explanation of Fox's new approach and instructions for accessing. While Klauss notes "Fox is working with non-participating TV providers to get you the access you desire," oddly, he neglects to mention immediate access is also available on Hulu Plus.
All of this underscores the pitfalls of pay-TV's balkanized structure and the value that Hulu has provided as a centralized destination. Fox must arduously go to all pay-TV operators to sign them up one-by-one to provide authenticated TV Everywhere access in the 8-day window. Given their varying states of readiness, Fox is unlikely to achieve 100% coverage for a very long time (if ever), meaning some users will only get access after 8 days. While that process unfolds, tied as it is to retransmission fee negotiations, there will be disgruntled Fox fans and former Hulu users (akin to Time Warner Cable and Cablevision subscribers who have been pining away for HBO GO access). And once an operator actually is on board, users must be messaged as such, then must find and enter their information, and then hopefully be able to view.
All of this is a huge departure from the Hulu experience that millions have come to enjoy. Fox is reigning-in the unfettered access that Hulu users have had, as it bolsters its case for retrans fees from pay-TV operators. It's all perfectly understandable, but will be no less frustrating to users who just want to watch their favorite programs online. What the outcome of this new friction will be - increased piracy, decreased viewing, switching to other entertainment options, is yet to be determined.
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