03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can Hulu rescue TV (For Nothing)?

Online Media Daily reports that Needham & Co. analyst, Laura Martin, was dispensing doses of reality to a packed house at the OMMA Video conference in Los Angeles last week. Referring to Hulu, she observed that it's not especially difficult to take $3 billion worth of product (meaning, programming from Hulu's participating owners such as NBC, ABC and Fox) and give it away successfully online to the delight of millions of users. The question is how to make money from that give-away which, Laura Martin suggested, could take the industry 10 more years to answer.

Actually, we can probably answer the question right now: Hulu won't make money - not, at least, TV kinds of money. Some money will be made, for sure, but not TV kinds of money. So, if that means Hulu will end up squandering the equity of major media brands by offering $3 billion in programming online for free, better cut and run.

Unless Hulu is really saving TV by being free.

Consider that Hulu attracts 38.5 million viewers according to the measurement service, comScore. With such large audience numbers the business instinct is to, 1) charge for content, or 2) insert commercials in front of those 38.5 million viewers as many times as possible. Laura Martin has ideas for both, with content fees for archived programming the most easily accessible. Other options that charge for new or existing content and/or rely on the routine of television commercials are more problematic, and Martin thinks it may take 10 years to successfully introduce those options with the audience.

With regards to advertising, Laura Martin estimates that Hulu inserts four ads per hour on Hulu. That compares to 32 30-second spots that are shown every hour on television for the same programming. It's not clear from the Online Media Daily report if we're meant to think that 32 commercial breaks per hour represents the model for Hulu, but the delta between four commercials an hour and 32 per hour implies plenty of revenue upside if the Hulu people would just get on with selling more of it.

Sadly (or not), they can't. While there is programming capacity online to absorb $3 billion worth of inventory it is highly questionable whether there is commercial capacity to absorb the equivalent of $65 billion in video TV advertising, or even some reasonable fraction thereof.

For one thing, as noted by the Online Media Daily story, the average Hulu viewer spent one hour and 17 minutes watching videos on the site in the month of August, which compares favorably to 3.7 minutes for online video consumption, per viewer, across the rest of the Internet. Elsewhere, Neilsen reported that online video consumption in total had climbed to over three hours. These metrics don't add together, but between the three of them it seems clear that the average amount of time spent consuming online video per month is still not the thing dominating people's schedules.

In contrast, according to the first number I could lay my browser on (which happened to be at, in February the Neilsen Company reported television viewing at an all-time high of over 150 hours per viewer, per month which it attributed to the rise in the number of cable channels ("many, many more cable channels") and DVR and TiVo devices.

In other words - as we've heard before - the introduction of more relevant programming combined with technology to avoid commercials is helping sustain and grow TV viewership. From this we could take it that 32 30-second commercials per hour is not the model, even where the model supposedly exists. People don't like commercials. This is partly the reason they like Hulu.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, therefore, the brand equity impact of Hulu on the multi-billion dollar equity value of giant television media franchises may be very positive right now, and may go negative the more its caregivers try and transform Hulu into television by introducing more commercial messages.

As a way around some of these problems and possibilities, one can get the sense from talking to online video enthusiasts that they are waiting for the day when 150 hours of viewing time exists without regard to platform, Internet or television, and where screens are connected and become one. This is the "Eventually-the-Internet-will-become-television" argument in which Internet video strategy simply docks with television and its $65 billion in advertising review. It says that traveling at the vaunted speed of Internet time returns us to the spot from which we left. It's a boring outcome, it ought to seem, for new media, and a rotten one, too, for consumers in a consumer-driven world.

For now, perhaps it's better to think of the three-hours of time per month that viewers online devote to video as brand-reinforcing time. Contrary to the idea that $3 billion in free programming online is destructive, it may be that it is terribly important to driving programming loyalty and repeated use offline, on television, and to supporting a $65 billion business despite the corrosive effects of fragmentation and commercial-skipping technology.

Once again, new media provides for older generations.