Medium: Can a giant broadcast corporation sell out?


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I share my bed with Tina Fey. When things get really crazy, I invite Steve Carell along for the action. Some nights, I cuddle up with as many as five or 10 media personalities.

This companionship comes courtesy of Hulu, a joint online venture among GE (NBC), News Corp. (Fox), and Disney (ABC), which streams current and canceled television shows as well as feature films without charge. But my free bedtime stories may soon be just another distant childhood memory.

Comcast Corp., a cable television operator, is set to buy a controlling stake in the Peacock Network as early as this week. Aside from being the ultimate revenge, because cable was once considered the electromagnetic spectrum’s ghetto for crass and crude content, the sale of a powerful broadcast outlet to a cable operator has a number of repercussions for viewers. The business media speculate that a Comcast-controlled NBC means cash for content.

I’m not alone in my Hulu addiction. According to an August ComScore study, more than 38 million visitors watched videos on Hulu during the month of July. But the days of free content on Hulu might be running out.

In 2007, Radiohead asked fans how much the band’s latest album was worth. I said $10. A lot of fans said zero. Well, at the risk of bad bargaining, I’ll admit Hulu is priceless. So yes, whatever Comcast asks me to pay for it is a steal in comparison, but the network might end up poking its viewers, and itself, in the eyes.

When Metallica sued Napster 10 years ago, music fans made the argument that free content led them to purchase more. Similarly, TV fans will argue that Hulu is merely an alternative, an online chance to catch shows they’d normally watch on TV but miss because of other commitments.

That’s a valid point, and so is this — the few shows NBC can brag about all get a boost from being available free on Hulu. “30 Rock” has its online fans largely to thank for its continued renewal despite its lack of broadcast viewers.

NBC’s hit-making days are fewer and further between. The ’80s Must See TV boon of “The Cosby Show,” “Family Ties,” and “Cheers” begot the ’90s programming renaissance of “ER,” “Friends,” and “Seinfeld.” As those shows faded, nothing on NBC’s slate replaced them. The network is running fourth in the ratings race with no signs of speeding up.

But there is Hulu; 38 million viewers a month isn’t enough to keep anyone floating in the broadcast sea, but on the Internet, that number is impressive. Also, those 38 million viewers watched an average of 12 videos each, for a total of more than 457 million videos viewed in one month, or as Comcast probably sees it, “Ka-ching.”

The heady days of Johnny Carson and Jerry Seinfeld may be over, and the one way the Peacock can turn into a golden swan is by charging those web freeloaders for content. News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch announced he plans to charge for Hulu’s Fox content as early as next year, but there are no public concrete plans for the switch.

Is it be worth it to Comcast to make the bank online and risk a viewer revolt? Stay tuned.

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