Posted on Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011 by Angie Han
Last week, Fox introduced changes to its licensing rules so that shows would be available for free on Hulu eight days after their original air date instead of the usual 24 hours. The move was intended as a way to encourage viewers to either watch shows as they air, or to purchase cable subscriptions which would allow them to keep watching their shows the next day.
However, as you might guess, there was at least one unintended consequence of Fox’s new plan: a big jump in piracy. TorrentFreak tracked two shows, Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen and MasterChef, on BitTorrent to see whether Fox’s move would affect piracy. They found that illegal downloads of both shows more than doubled. Read more after the jump.
Fox instituted the change last Monday. Under the new rules, paying Hulu members and cable subscribers can still access Fox shows the next day, but viewers who’ve been watching for free must now wait eight days to see episodes online.
In the first five days, according to TorrentFreak, the number of downloads in the U.S. for the most recent Hell’s Kitchen rose by 114%, compared to download levels of the previous three episodes, while MasterChef saw a whopping 189% in the increase of U.S. downloads. It’s worth noting that the MasterChef episode in question was the season finale, so people were likely extra desperate to see the show sooner rather than later — though apparently not all of them were desperate enough to actually sit down and watch the show live.
Fox was likely aware that piracy would increase to some degree, and still figured the advantages would outweigh the drawbacks in the long run. It’s too soon to say whether the new plan has worked out for them, especially since we don’t have figures on whether viewership or subscriptions have actually increased in the past week. However, I’m skeptical that this is going to do a whole lot to encourage Hulu users to forget the whole TV-on-the-Internet thing and either watch TV live or pay for cable.
The type of viewer who’s turning to Hulu probably doesn’t have the time or the inclination to watch live television in the first place, and has already decided that he doesn’t want to pay for cable. (It’s not like anyone is unaware that pay TV is an option.) This individual probably already has a decent Internet connection and at least some amount of computer savvy. Given that situation, it’s not tough to imagine that he’ll find some other alternative that allows him to keep watching shows the way he wants to watch them, whether it’s downloading, YouTube, or what have you.
Networks may not see Hulu as an ideal platform for getting their shows to viewers, but surely it’s better than piracy. Hulu has targeted advertising, and its usual one-day delay is long enough to encourage live viewing to some degree without being so long as to inspire people to turn to illegal means. Piracy has no advertising, which is fine for the viewer but bad for the networks, and popular shows go up quickly enough that an individual could reasonably download and watch a show the same night it airs. I get that networks are still figuring out how to make money in the age of the Internet, but let’s face it: the Internet isn’t going anywhere. Networks need to learn to work with it, not shun it in hopes people will revert to more old-fashioned methods.