ocean_hulu1This column has a global audience so sometimes I have to defend my tendency to see things from an American perspective.  But I’m not sure there even IS a defense for this particular item so I’ll just jump into it, because I think even readers from Kazahkstan and Kuwait (my two big K’s) may ultimately find it interesting.  It’s about Apple and Hulu and the direction Internet TV is going in the United States.

It’s not headed where you think it is.

Hulu is the ad-supported video distribution site set up by NBC-Universal and Fox.  It’s where, in addition to the TV network pages, viewers can go to watch thousands of television shows, old and new, supported by commercials.  Of the four big broadcast (as opposed to cable) networks in the U.S., Hulu until recently had half of them with CBS hiding out at TV.com and ABC residing solely at ABC.com.  But now ABC, which is owned by Disney, has decided to join Hulu and the pundits think that’s generally a big deal, not only because of the whole three-to-one thing but because Steve Jobs is the largest shareholder in Disney and on the Disney board and this would appear to be a kick in the face to Apple’s iTunes, where people rent or buy the same shows without commercials.

Is it or isn’t it a big deal?  And what does this move mean for Apple?

There have always been two general methods of distributing Internet video — downloading or streaming — and three business models — buying, renting, or watching with commercials.  Conventional wisdom — what THEY say — has it that streaming (YouTube) is better than downloading (iTunes) and watching with commercials (Hulu and TV.com) are better than renting or buying (iTunes again).

No, they aren’t, at least not as businesses, not yet.

Business Week, among others, made a grand effort this week to present Hulu as a masterstroke that will hurt or kill iTunes rather than what it is — an expensive streaming service that doesn’t make money.

My wife and I last night watched an episode of Chuck on Hulu.  We started on nbc.com where I thought we might see the show in HD but that wasn’t the case.  And even the standard definition version at nbc.com didn’t play well despite our dual-core 2.4-GHz system with four gigs of RAM and an eight megabit business broadband connection.  So we switched to Hulu where the 480p version stuttered a bit so we dropped to 360p where it played fine except for having to rebuffer a couple of times during the show.

In contrast to this with iTunes you have to wait for downloading but then none of this performance stuff happens. If you want HD you get HD, but then again you are PAYING for HD.

We watched the episode (fun) and all but one commercial was for Rwandan relief.  There is no way Hulu or NBC-Universal were making a profit on that stream, and this was a very popular show.

When you buy an episode on iTunes everyone in the production food chain makes a profit.

Hulu and its ilk are money-losing services that rely largely on concessions in various guild contracts that pretty much keep the writers and producers and actors from sharing in profits that aren’t there anyway, at least not yet.

How is this a threat to iTunes?

Fox owns a big chunk of Hulu, yet American Idol performances are exclusively available on iTunes, not Hulu.  Why is that?  Because American Idol performances on iTunes make a lot of MONEY, that’s why.  Adam Lambert downloads alone make more money every week — a LOT more money — than do ALL the shows on Hulu put together.

So Apple is being criticized and seen as an Internet antique because it is making a profit?  I don’t get it.

I’m not saying here, by the way, that there is no room for commercials on Internet TV.  Nor am I saying that Apple won’t possibly move to commercials or streaming at some point.  This is not gratuitous Apple ass-kissing. What I AM saying is that it is a lot easier to move from paid to free than it is to go from free to paid.  Hulu can’t choose to emulate Apple and become profitable that way because viewers would flee.

As I’ve written over and over, Apple is moving slowly and steadily toward becoming primarily a content provider.  Microsoft is trying to do the same but without Apple’s discipline.  Apple is putting in place all the pieces it needs to make a run at dominating the future of TV, but they know it takes time to get all those bits where they need to be.

What’s needed are devices and services and bandwidth at a given price point where it all works smoothly not just from a technical but also from a commercial standpoint.  Apple is there right now when it comes to downloading and selling or renting, but not for streaming or commercials — the numbers aren’t right yet, nor is the mix of devices.  But the time is coming soon when it will be right, certainly in no more than two years and maybe less.

Now here’s the key for all the pundits who see Apple failing or faltering: you are looking in the wrong direction.  It doesn’t matter how many networks are part of Hulu.  In time they will probably all be there.  But Hulu will remain an artifact of network labor agreements and will be vulnerable for that reason.  Hulu can’t afford to PAY its way.

Follow the money.

Apple has at this moment just under $29 billion in cash and not many good ways to get a reasonable return on that money.  Only Microsoft has more cash than Apple and Microsoft is being pulled in a lot more directions so Microsoft doesn’t have Apple’s flexibility.

What will Apple do with that money?

Most of it will remain unspent is my prediction, but I’m guessing we’ll shortly see $3 billion or so per year go into buying Internet rights for TV shows — not old TV shows but NEW TV shows, shows of all types.

TV production in the U.S. is approximately a $15 billion industry.  An extra $3 billion thrown into that business would change its dynamics completely.  Most production isn’t done by networks but by independent producers who are hungry for revenue and risk reduction.  Three billion Apple dollars spread around that crowd every year would buy Internet rights for EVERY show — more than every show in fact.  Whole new classes of shows would be invented, sapping talent from other parts of the industry.  It would be invigorating and destabilizing at the same time.  And because it is Apple — a company with real style — the new shows wouldn’t at all be crap programming.  They’d be new and innovative.

And just as the artistic heart of TV shifted to cable with HBO in the 1980s, so it will shift to the Internet and Apple.

And where will be Hulu?

Nobody will care.