The Death of Free: Will Free Online Content Like Hulu Ever Dry Up?

Hulu Free Content

Did your father ever tell you there’s no such thing as a free lunch? Well, most of today’s industry experts would probably agree with him. The idea of “free” has become extremely controversial in the technology industry, especially in the case of online content. Rumors that favorite show streaming website Hulu will be charging for all of their content has most online-media-viewing junkies scared stiff. Sources for Hulu, after reaping the backlash of complaints, deny the rumors and say turning the service into a pay-only site is just not in the cards. Fair enough, but what happens when Hulu and other sites get desperate? Ad sales are down, magazines and newspapers aren’t selling, and people are only accessing “free” web content. Will these poor economic conditions and lack of advertising force more web publishers into a pay-only frenzy?

Our sources say no. Rafat Ali, Publisher and Editor of the online news site paidContent.org, thinks we’ve come full circle and things will start looking up for online news sites and businesses. The Hulu rumors have been circling for months and Ali thinks there may be a slight truth to all the madness. “If they’re going to charge, it will be for high-value content,” he says. “But realistically, Hulu will not change and the majority of the shows people are watching for free will remain free.” He thinks very few sites will be charging for their content, and if they do then it will be highly specialized content. Ali says that in 2002 people had the same scare and everyone thought they’d have to pay to access sites, but that was just a phase. “The market came back soon after and advertising picked up again,” he says. Ali sees the same forecast for today’s scenario.

Plastic Logic eReaderInterestingly, Ali believes the real problem lies within our idea of “free.” Now that society is piquing with mobility, people are accessing more media on mobile devices like netbooks and smartphones—Ali reminds us that we pay service fees for these devices, for its apps, and the media content viewed—making the definition of free a little obsolete. He also sees this paradox with eReaders because the eReaders coming out are charging for their eBooks. And even a free eBook from the Web is going onto a very expensive eReader device. Ali thinks the idea that free content is completely and totally “free” is a little too optimistic. “The marginal cost may be zero, but the cost of production isn’t,” he says. “Content creators still need to get paid.”

Similarly, Outsell’s Affiliate Analyst Ken Doctor thinks America is seriously lacking good news sites and news stories because of our nation’s demand for fast and free content. “Americans are getting about 800,000 fewer news stories due to staff cuts,” he says. The mania surrounding free content is taking a toll on the readers. Doctor believes that today’s web content isn’t as high-quality as it should be because of our ubiquitous nature to publish “free” content. He says many people don’t realize that promoting free content is also promoting cheap, low quality content. “Free content only changed the distribution aspect of information, but the problem is the people making that content still need to get paid,” he claims.

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