Not being able to access Hulu is a frequent cause of aggravation for Australian TV viewers. Will 2011 be the year that the streaming TV service finally arrives down under?
Back in November, there were reports that Hulu would be forming a partnership with Channel Nine to introduce the service down under. Since then, there haven't been any fresh rumours on that front, although any deal like that would take time to lock into place and Nine presumably wouldn't want to introduce any kind of major TV platform during the off-ratings season. (Not that most of us wouldn't welcome additional viewing options during the oasis of new non-sports content that happens over summer, but the TV mindset is very firmly locked onto the idea that nothing relevant ever happens in January.)
Why do we care?
The big appeal of Hulu is that it offers most of the content from three of the four major US TV networks (ABC, Fox and NBC) on a single site. Missed an episode of your favourite series? You don't have to hunt around on the broadcaster's site or a program's official page to see if it's available; chances are it will be on Hulu soon after broadcast. It also includes content that isn't actively broadcast by any of those services, with a wide range of archive material and older movies.
Hulu is configured so that viewers identified as being from outside the US (a process which uses a range of technologies such as your ISP and your IP address) are blocked from the service. We've highlighted a number of ways to access Hulu in the past, including proxy apps, port tweaking and using Squid. If you can make one of those tricks work, you can access a large amount of US content soon after broadcast without needing to use torrents.
Most of these require at least some degree of technical skill, and all are vulnerable to Hulu blocking those attempts with changes to its technology. If a local version is introduced, those efforts are likely to be redoubled. (For one thing, if there's a local version introduced as a joint venture partnership, then Hulu won't want Australians going to the "wrong" service.)
Lifehacker reader Anthony Sullivan points out that Hulu has had a trademark registered in Australia since August 2008. (As well as covering the expected entertainment categories, it also oddly covers bags, wallets and umbrellas. Trademark laws are weird.) The odds are good that this was part of a blanket registration of the Hulu trademark in multiple countries across the globe — when setting up a new brand, that kind of trademark activity is pretty standard practice.
What might it look like?
US Hulu viewers have two options: to watch advertising within programs, or to subscribe to the Hulu Plus service for $US7.99 a month. Hulu Plus viewers still have to view ads, but get a deeper archive of programs such as full seasons for some shows (typically, content is only available for around a month after being uploaded to the service). Hulu Plus also works on non-browser devices such as games consoles.
If Hulu does get introduced into Australia, then it's safe to assume that it won't simply copy the US content. Networks pay large sums for the rights to US series, and they won't want viewers to be able to see them ahead of their local broadcast, which, despite the advent of so-called "fast tracking", is often weeks or months behind their US appearance. If Nine indeed gets in on the act, it very likely won't include current Australian content from other local commercial networks either (though it may well include older archive shows, as those rights will often be held by the producers rather than the networks).
One challenge for the service will be dealing with download limits. While it's now quite possible to get a one terabyte or unlimited service, many Australians still have lower download limits. If Hulu can form a partnership to offer unmetered content, then that will improve its appeal.
Whether that will be an appealing partnership also remains to be seen. Telstra, for instance, might prefer to direct customers to its own T-Box hardware. Numerous ISPs have offered unmetered access to the ABC's iView service, but negotiating with a non-profit government organisation is very different to tying up a deal with a profit-oriented network.
While Hulu would be an interesting addition to the local scene, it isn't necessarily an essential one. iView already does pretty much the exact same thing for the ABC, and Seven's Plus7, Nine's FIXPlay and Ten's site also offer program catch-up services of varying quality. Having everything on a single site would be nice, but with broadcast delays still in place Hulu.com.au won't seem anywhere near as appealing as Hulu.com.
If Hulu is going to be introduced on a paid subscription model, then its backers might want to get their act together quickly. The BBC is also looking into ways to make its iPlayer TV service available worldwide. Hulu and iPlayer are both good services, but if I had to choose just one to subscribe to, it would be iPlayer every time.
Would you be willing to pay for Hulu if it gets introduced in Australia? Are you past caring about any streaming TV services? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Lifehacker's weekly Streaming column looks at how technology is keeping us entertained.