Hulu, American McGee’s Grimm and Dr. Horrible. These three products have something in common–a limited-time-only free release policy–and they may be setting the example for how we are going to see distribution on the internet.
Hulu is the new online web channel that was created for mainstream networks (and others) to distribute their content for free. Dr. Horrible, which–coincidentally–happens to be hosted by Hulu, is a made for online production created by some serious names in the TV/Movie industry, and American McGee’s Grimm is a new game that will be released episodically through the Gametap service later this month. (A quick note: I pointed at Grimm as one of the games to look for this year, way back in my Top Games for 2008 feature.)
Hulu is well known for allowing the networks (NBC, FOX, etc…) to post content to their site and then take it down seemingly arbitrarily. This policy has brought both Hulu and the networks a lot of heat from tech media, including repeated mentions of the issue on CNET’s Buzz Out Loud podcast. Dr. Horrible has, to some disappointment, announced that its run as a free show in three 15 minute segments, will be only for the week of its release. Gametap has announced that it will be running Grimm for free on the day of each episode’s release and it will become a for-pay product after that.
Though the community reacted very differently to the release policy of these three groups, their plans for distribution are almost identical.
Though Hulu may seem the most oblique of the bunch, it may simply be working on a backend of more information than we have. I wouldn’t be surprised if the free content on Hulu came down at times that corresponded with spikes, or predicted spikes, in DVD sales or re-airings on cable.
In a way, this is almost a throw back when it comes to looking at distribution methods; it is essentially a broadcast model that is being adapted to the internet. Texts are being released for free during the period of their distribution, in the same way a TV show is released on a network. After that, repeats of the TV show are accessible on a limited time basis. Otherwise, they can only be found by purchasing the DVDs or on a pay-for-use service–cable. This is essentially the same system in use for all three groups, Hulu, Gametap and the Dr. Horrible team.
Amusingly, old as this system may seem, as a distribution plan it makes even more sense online than it does on TV. With social networking, blogging, and internet fandom as a cohesive community online products have a great deal of grassroots support and automated highly effective modes of promotion. Blogging, micro-blogging and sharing, all these methods plug into a system of distribution points that allow a fast and almost viral spread of news. An initial free release for an online product such as Dr. Horrible allows the creators to bypass the traditional media’s methods of promotion and mainstream reviewers and go straight to online communities, allowing bloggers and their kin to do the marketing.
Even better for the creators of such content, on the internet there will always be fans of a product, no matter what the quality. By bypassing the media gatekeepers, limited-free-release online products are almost guaranteeing a boost in sales over an non-free initial release.
Though these may be the most obvious examples, the policy is quickly being adapted. Instead of sending free review copies out, or finding a limited number of beta testers, a free release to the entire community means that you are eliminating some of the danger posed by product pirates and increasing your overall visibility and fan base. This concept is already being practiced by the networks on their home sites and Hulu. Now more content creators are picking up on this policy as an advantageous distribution plan.
I predict that we are going to see this very often in the future.