We've reached the end of an era in online television.
After years of serving the Internet thousands of shows for free, Hulu is cutting off support for its no-cost streaming video service. To keep watching, viewers will either need to start paying for a plan or go through one of Hulu's commercial partners.
More on the latter in a second but first: Hulu's decision to terminate free streaming is a major step as it tries to gain more traction against other streaming video heavyweights, such as Netflix, YouTube and Amazon. Together, those three account for nearly 57 percent of all Internet traffic consumed in North America during peak hours. Hulu's share stands at a measly 2.7 percent.
By switching to a subscription-only model, Hulu becomes a lot more like Netflix. Customers will be asked to buy into either the $7.99-a-month tier, which still shows ads, or the $11.99-a-month tier, which eliminates ads. Netflix has been moving to adopt tiers of service, as well — charging similar prices but differentiating those plans based on video quality and the number of devices you can watch from at any given time (often a must for families).
When Hulu first opened for business in America in 2008, it was the free, ad-supported streaming that put it on the map. Alongside Netflix, Hulu helped introduce millions of people to the idea of watching TV on the Web, paving the way for the current explosion in apps that provide video "over the top" of people's Internet connections.
But although one chapter in Hulu's history is ending, we're already seeing signs that the company is pivoting to the next. On Monday, Yahoo announced that it's becoming a commercial partner to Hulu, launching a portal that will offer some Hulu content for free. The site, known as Yahoo View, is already live and starting in the fall will offer up to the last five episodes of popular shows from networks such as ABC, NBC and Fox. Yahoo also plans to pull show-related content from Tumblr and make it accessible to users of the site. Yahoo View joins a number of other partners, such as Comcast, that offer an alternative way to watch Hulu for "free" apart from Hulu's main site. But it's Yahoo View that will have the overwhelming majority of Hulu's free content moving forward, while other Hulu partners will continue to simply offer a selection.
In addition, Hulu has said it intends to launch a live TV service this year — meaning that paying customers will soon gain access to real-time television, as opposed to having to watch their shows online only after their original air dates.
It's hard to say whether these moves will make much of a dent in the dominance of Netflix and YouTube, or if they'll add meaningful growth to Hulu's 12 million-strong subscriber base. But either way, these decisions may end up being a major turning point in the history of online television.