If we’ve learned one thing about the TV business over the past year, it’s that almost everything that was once written in stone is now up for grabs, including who is in control and what they see as their end goal. Recent reports of a new streaming, cable-style TV service from Hulu are only the latest sign of this ongoing turbulence.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Hulu is working on a subscription service that would be available “over the top,” or without a cable box. Instead of the usual reruns of older shows that Hulu has become known for, the report says the new $40-a-month service would include current channels and programming from TV players like Walt Disney and 21st Century Fox, such as ABC, ESPN, and Fox News.
The fact that Disney and Fox are involved in this new offering makes sense because they are co-owners of Hulu. But Comcast, also a part-owner of Hulu through its NBCUniversal subsidiary, apparently isn’t on board with the idea of the new service just yet. That’s not hugely surprising either as a real-time streaming version of Hulu would effectively compete with Comcast’s existing cable business.
The reality of the current TV landscape, of course, is that virtually everyone is competing with everyone else in some way or another as all the major players scramble to stake a claim in the new digital, streaming marketplace.
Cable companies, which used to control one of the only routes through which entertainment could get into people’s homes, are watching digital-only providers such as Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon become more and more powerful. TV networks are realizing that they can no longer count on the old framework of industry relationships to protect them as we saw in the recent fight between the Dish Network and Viacom.
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The amount of “cord cutting” behavior remains a topic of heated debate, with Comcast saying it hasn’t seen much evidence of it occurring so far. The cable giant added 53,000 subscribers in the last quarter—its best performance in almost a decade—and some analysts saying reports of the death of cable “have been greatly exaggerated.”
Whatever the size of that emerging market might be, it is clearly growing. Even within the existing TV business, consumer behavior continues to change dramatically. Many viewers seem to prefer the choice they get with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and other services over the static offerings and rigid scheduling they get from cable, and the industry is trying to adapt.
Cable companies are trying to appeal to younger users with so-called “skinny bundles” and other attempts at streaming services. Comcast recently launched one called Stream, offering HBO and a selection of channels for $15 a month—another reason why it might not be eager to jump on board with the new Hulu service. The Dish Network has a streaming service called SlingTV that offers something similar.
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Some of the larger TV networks have also launched their own Netflix-style streaming services. CBS already has one called CBS All Access, and it is trying to attract viewers by promising that episodes of a new Star Trek-inspired TV show will be available only there. NBCUniversal has a subscription service called Seeso specifically for comedy, and the Peacock network is planning to launch as many as nine targeted services aimed at discrete markets.
Then there’s Sony’s Playstation VUE service, which offers a selection of streaming channels for $30 a month. HBO has its own standalone digital-streaming offering called HBO Now. At one point, Apple was said to be working on a streaming service for its revamped Apple TV platform, but the iPhone maker reportedly wasn’t able to get TV networks to agree to its pricing and has shelved the project.
The fact that even a company as powerful as Apple can’t make peace with some of the major players is yet another sign of how fractured and uncertain the current TV landscape is. Allegiances keep changing, alliances form and then fall apart—something that could very well be happening with Hulu as it is pulled in different directions by its owners—and no one is quite sure who is in control any more. Welcome to the future of TV.