Time Warner Cable is rumored to be buying a stake in Hulu and stop streaming shows the day after they air, instead making customers wait until the entire season has aired. This move is obviously intended to stop the stampede of cord cutters who have ditched cable for streaming in recent years. Industry insiders estimate that in 2014, 8.2 percent of cable TV subscribers made the switch to online-only viewing, a rate that increased 1.3 percent over the previous year.
But cutting Hulu off at the knees is only going to make the problem so much worse, and there’s a ripple effect that in the end hurts television itself.
What’s the biggest show on television right now? Conventional wisdom might suggest that it would be a network show, like The Big Bang Theory, CBS’ longtime Nielsen juggernaut, or Empire, the breakout hip-hop drama that shattered modern ratings records after debuting on Fox last year. It’s actually cable TV’s Game of Thrones, the HBO hit show, even though it averaged just 9.2 million viewers in 2014—and it’s because it’s the most-pirated show on TV.
If cord cutters can’t get their favorite shows through paid premium digital services, they’re likely to find them for free elsewhere—through less than legal means.
Cutting Hulu off at the knees is only going to make the problem so much worse, and there’s a ripple effect that in the end hurts television itself.
On Torrent websites, Game of Thrones more than doubles the download numbers of its next closest competitors, The Big Bang Theory and The Walking Dead. That estimate doesn’t even take into account those who are streaming the HBO drama through illegal streaming services like Project Free TV.
When it comes to how we watch TV in the Internet age, the television and cable industry remains lightyears behind the times. Nielsen, the industry’s most-relied upon ratings indicator, didn’t start taking into account DVR numbers until 2005. Just over a decade later, an increasing share of the American public is no longer watching their favorite shows live. “This season, time-shifting has accounted for 37 percent of non-rerun, non-sports viewing up to seven days after day-of-air on the four major broadcast networks,” the Los Angeles Times’ Ryan Faughnder writes. “That’s up from 33 percent at the same time last year and up significantly from just 26 percent in 2009.”
Nielsen might have caught up to TiVo, but no one is tracking Netflix or Hulu numbers, despite the fact that Hulu boasts more than 9 million paid subscribers a month. But even that number doesn’t count the unpaid viewers who are just tuning into the most recent episode of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat without creating an actual profile on the site. Netflix, which is killing Hulu with 57 million subscribers, is even cagier about its data. The streaming service won’t release streaming numbers on shows like Master of None, Jessica Jones, and Orange Is the New Black; we all know they are hits, but how big? It’s nearly impossible to say.
To put it simply, nobody knows how many people are watching TV or how they’re watching it, but Time Warner cuting off these viewers from the only platforms we have available to track them is the definition of cutting off your nose to spite your face. What’s truly strange about this, too, is that Netflix and Hulu were long seen as the answer to the problem of Internet piracy. In 2013, Huffington Post Canada reported that the introduction of Netflix had been a major boon to Canadian TV—as piracy rates plummeted by 50 percent.
When it comes to how we watch TV in the Internet age, the television and cable industry remains lightyears behind the times.
Despite the benefits of streaming, networks like CBS have consistently fought to have their programming aired on Hulu, preferring to launch their own paid streaming app (currently priced at $5.99 per month). A recent report suggested that CBS’ Greg Berlanti-produced Supergirl—the channel’s first foray into the superhero genre—wouldn’t be available on streaming services like Hulu for years, long after the demand has died off. Anyone who really wants to watch Supergirl won’t wait that long to get caught up; they’ll simply let Project Free TV fill the gap.
That’s not just bad for networks. It’s terrible for television shows that are trying to build an audience in an extremely competitive marketplace, one with more options than ever before. According to the New York Times, 2015 set an all-time record for the number of original scripted television shows—with 409 programs airing across a variety of broadcast, cable, and Web-based platforms. With such an absurdly high volume of content, it’s easy for shows to get lost in the noise—and even easier if networks stonewall potential viewers from the few ways that, like it or not, people legally watch television these days.
In the Golden Age of Television, the ethos was simple: If you build it, they will come. All you had to do was create great programming and hope that audiences heard the call, tuning on their sets at the specified day and time. But 86 years after The Man with the Flower in His Mouth became the first drama to air on television, it’s no longer so simple. In the era of Peak TV, companies need to bring their content to viewers in ways that are timely and accessible from a laptop or mobile device. Otherwise, quality shows that deserve our attention may get left behind.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of “The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions” and the co-editor of the bestsellingBOYSanthology series. Follow him on Twitter @Nico_Lang.
Illustration by Max Fleishman