Hulu posted some pretty awesome revenue numbers last night, including projections that the company will make close to half a billion dollars in 2011 and drive 300 million dollars in revenue to its content partners. However, all of that success comes with a price. Like every other over-the-top video provider, Hulu has had to limit its catalog in order to keep content owners happy and stay financially viable. And that makes it hard to maintain loyal viewers. The company says it is on track to exceed one million Hulu Plus subscribers this year, which suggests growing interest in Hulu’s premium platform. But I have to question whether that growth is sustainable over the long term. Once the ability to access television online becomes more commonplace, will Hulu be able to continue wooing consumers and survive as a stand-alone platform?
Two arguments against Hulu come to mind. First, now that cable companies are taking TV everywhere, Hulu has to contend with an industry that is masterful in paying out cash to its content providers. In a shootout between the two, I’d bet on the cable companies. Second, Netflix has proven, so far, that it’s possible to be a successful streaming company. However, even Netflix faces serious challenges in the future, and it’s hard to imagine that two companies in such a difficult space can survive without strong differentiation. Netflix has a serious leg up on Hulu with more than 20 million paying subscribers to date. Can Hulu really compete with that?
Hulu certainly still has options ahead, including the opportunity to build out an original content strategy and/or offer live television. And it still has Comcast as an investor, albeit one without management control now that the NBCU/Comcast merger has come to fruition. Will that be enough? Only consumer audiences will tell. But I’m less optimistic now than I was six months ago, particularly given how quickly cable companies have pushed their iPad TV apps to market.