Hooray for Accessible British Television

Hulu started out, once upon a time, as basically a catchup service, a collaboration between several networks that were just starting to explore the possibility of providing live streaming of their shows. They didn’t really understand how the internet worked, how much live streaming would catch on, and how much these services would change the world—consumers were finally being given a definitive reason to cut the cord when they could get television for free, instead of having to subscribe to costly packages that didn’t even always provide the television they wanted.

It stood out from Netflix, even with Netflix’ substantial online streaming options, with current-run television, and then, like a smart media company, it started expanding into exclusives and original series. Now, Hulu’s got a wide range of stuff going on, not just whatever was airing last night. Original web series are making important strides in the media landscape and Hulu has really cornered the market on that, making them accessible to huge audiences and using them to lure users into staying on the site instead of drifting off elsewhere.

And Hulu’s also come up with something else brilliant: licensing foreign television. I’m a big fan of the influx of Canadian and British TV that’s flooding Hulu right now, and of course there’s Hulu Latino, which imports television from Central and South America. I suspect we’re going to see even more of this in months and years to come as the site works out the details of licensing and distributing content from all over the world, turning itself into a global television hub for US users. At last, we have something to watch other than what’s on offer here.

And we don’t have to pay for it.

Now, PBS has a long history of importing British dramas, but only those of a very specific type, and only a limited number, because there’s only so much you can cram into the Masterpiece timeslot. Likewise, BBC America has picked up on the fact that people in the US seem to like British television—and in some cases like shows commissioned for US audiences—but you have to pay for it. Same with Netflix, which has a substantial assortment of international film and television, all behind a paywall. A pretty negligible paywall, at that, but still an access barrier for a lot of people, whether it’s a financial or emotional barrier.

Hulu appears to have perfected the art of reaching and hooking audiences, drawing them in with television they want to see and come back for, and getting a lot of ad impressions in the process. I’m not the kind of Hulu user to pay for the ‘Plus’ option even though it means I don’t have access to all shows when I want them, but I can understand those who do; it’s so very seductive, and it’s such a natural build on what Hulu already offers. Why not take it one step further and enhance your Huluing experience for a relatively low monthly fee that opens up your options that much more?

The Hulu model represents an important shift in media, and you don’t need me to tell you that. It’s being analysed in the trades and the mainstream media, and it’s a topic of wide discussion for people curious about whether it’s sustainable, and how it will carry on and shift into the future. The ready accessibility of British and other foreign television, though, marks something particularly special for me not just because it allows me to watch things I really love, but because it’s exposing traditionally network audiences to different forms of television.

We already know that cable favours short series orders for the tight storytelling they offer, combined with the better production values available when you’re shooting less television and taking it seriously. Now, networks are starting to pick up on the cable model—Hannibal, for example, has a 13 episode season and no intention of going up to 23 in its second season. It is a show designed to be savoured over the course of 13 episodes, not strung out across a traditional network season.

British television is even tighter, with longer individual episodes, but even shorter seasons. More like a true miniseries, even when individual television series may last across multiple seasons. (To add confusion to the matter, I know that Brits call a ‘season’ a ‘series’ but I’m using US terminology here because, damnit, this is AMERICA.) This kind of storytelling offers a lot of potential—see Sherlock for example—and it’s something we might just see picked up in the US if users on Hulu get used to it, start liking it, and begin to actively seek it out. (Now if only Hulu would carry Sherlock…)

In a way, Hulu is a little bit like a testing ground for US networks, as they can see what people are watching, why they’re watching it, and how they are navigating media. This helps them decide what to develop into series, what kinds of projects to pursue, and what kinds of models to think about. Would Hannibal have been allowed to buck convention is so many people hadn’t started turning to cable? I think not, and I think that proposals for miniseries-style shows in the future will owe a lot not just to cable but also to Hulu and the fact that it’s exposed audiences to the fact that there’s more than one way to do television, and this multitude of ways offers a great deal of fabulous options.

Which means that Hulu is very much a media pioneer, just as it always positioned itself. It’s struggled with sustainability and criticism, and there’s reasonable criticism to be aimed at the site, but one thing it’s definitely doing is changing the television landscape, and forcing people to rethink the way they interact with and talk about television. Welcome to the brave new world of media, courtesy, in no small part, Hulu.