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What Fox effect? Hulu sees little downside from authentication

When Fox (s NWS) announced that it would require TV Everywhere-type logins to stream a new TV episode the day after it aired, there was some concern that Hulu would see some of its audience disappear. But if comScore (s SCOR) numbers are to be believed, Hulu’s audience over the first few months of the new TV season has remained largely intact, and was actually up in October.

According to comScore’s most recent video rankings report, Hulu had 29.2 million unique viewers in October, who watched 791.4 million videos during that time. Viewers watched about 202 minutes, or just short of 3.5 hours each, on average. And Hulu served up 1.36 billion video ads, or an average of 46.5 per viewer. All of those metrics are up significantly from September, when Hulu had 27 million viewers who watched 642 million videos for an average of 180 minutes each.

And it means Hulu’s audience pretty much picked up where it left off after the end of the Spring TV season in May. During that month — the last before the major networks take a summer break from most new, original programming — Hulu had 28.5 million viewers who tuned in for 217 minutes each, according to comScore. And Hulu was able to serve up 1.32 billion ads, or 47.6 per viewer.

But Hulu’s October audience numbers come as one of its major content partners has placed restrictions on online viewership. In August, Fox announced that it would require online viewers to prove they subscribed to satellite TV for next-day access to its TV episodes on Hulu and

That Hulu’s audience has remained strong despite seeing some of its most popular programming — like Family Guy, New Girl and Glee — on the shelf for eight days is a little surprising. After all, Hulu is the place where viewers tune in online to “catch up” on shows they might have missed on live TV, or forgot to DVR. And the authentication plan today is limited only to Dish Network (s DISH) subscribers, which means that even about 90 percent of all those who pay for TV are still unable to watch episodes the day after they air.

But there are a few possible explanations for the strong audience numbers:

  1. While popular, Fox shows still account for just a small amount of overall Hulu viewership. During any given week, Family Guy, American Dad, Glee, Terra Nova and The Simpsons will be listed in the top 10 or 12 TV shows on Hulu. But viewers are watching a lot more than just those top shows. As time goes on, Hulu is betting more on long-tail content — like back episodes of CW shows or movies from Miramax or The Criterion Collection — to provide more content to attract viewers.
  2. Seth MacFarlane cartoons aren’t necessarily “must-see TV.” What’s the common thread in most of Fox’s most popular shows? If you’re thinking of Family Guy, American Dad and The Simpsons in particular, those shows aren’t the type that you need to tune in the next day to catch up on. In fact, the popularity of those shows is most likely due to the fact that there is no real narrative arc between shows or seasons — you can pretty much watch any Seth MacFarlane episode without having seen the last. The exceptions among Fox’s shows might be Glee and New Girl, which attract sizable audiences for their live airings and elicit lots of Twitter and watercooler-type conversation.
  3. Hulu’s hardcore online audience might not even be aware of the eight-day window. If you did all your TV viewing online, how would you even know that you were a week behind the rest of the TV-watching world? This is a phenomenon I became aware of while watching the most recent season of Louie on Hulu Plus. That series was delayed by 30 days before appearing online, but I personally had no idea that the season was long over by the time I was watching the final episodes — only that once a week I’d get an email alert saying that a new episode was available.

Of course, there’s no telling what Hulu’s numbers would be like if Fox viewers didn’t have to log in. But for now, it appears concerns over the effect Fox’s authentication plans would have on Hulu (including our own), were a little overblown. While there was some question over whether or not other operators would follow Dish Network’s lead in supporting Fox’s authentication plans — and possibly reworking their retransmission agreements to enable users to stream next-day episodes online — the lack of an actual consumer outcry or slowdown in viewership at Hulu provides little real incentive for them to rush to do so.

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