Please Don’t Take My Free Content Away

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Apparently a few pretty big bricks are being added to the pay wall. Three giants in the world of free online content—YouTube, Hulu, and the New York Times—may not be quite as free in the near future.
Wired editor Chris Anderson wrote in his recent book that free is the business model of the future. Maybe the present too. But will free really work in the long run for all that many companies? Not everybody can be Google. Can advertising and/or side businesses that complement free content and somehow pull in revenues work?

In the past week, after months of speculation and much anguish over the future of news, info leaked that the NY Times will indeed ease its way toward a pay model for its website. (Or rather, ease its way back to that model, because it had tried and failed with a system that charged to read certain “premium” columns.) The new plan is to charge only the folks who are clicking on a lot—you won’t have to pay just to look at a story that popped up in a search.

YouTube is also testing the pay-content waters, but no, no one’s going to be charged for the pleasure of watching vintage ’80s commercials or giggling babies or cutely snoring kittens (at least not yet). The video-sharing site instead is charging for full-length online movie rentals to compete with Netflix and other services.

Finally, Hulu, which has grown hugely popular for letting viewers watch dozens of new TV shows for free and at anytime they want—offering plenty of entertainment alternatives to folks who are sick of paying cable bills—seems to be close to launching a new for-pay strategy. Per the LA Times:

The site has spent months studying how to strike a balance between what people expect to watch free online and what they would be willing to pay for, said people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly.

One plan being considered would allow users to view the five most recent episodes of TV shows free but would require a subscription of $4.99 a month to watch older episodes. Hulu believes it will need at least 20 TV series — both current ones and those no longer on the air — to make such a pay service attractive to users. A firm pricing model could emerge within six months, the sources said.

Will any of these pay models actually bring in big profits? I wouldn’t bank on it—or on any of these strategies even sticking around for all that long, though everyone understands why these businesses (the Times and other print news providers especially) have got to try something. Still, a lot of previous attempts to get people to pay for online content have failed.

There seem to be plenty of loopholes too, especially with the Times: Before too long, people will figure out just how often they can go to the site without paying, or how they’ll be able to access the Times’ content through an intermediary like Huffington Post or Google News.

If these sites actually do figure out how to build pay walls that can’t be circumvented, the next question is: Just how many people are going to pay to get inside the wall? And how annoyed are lots of other folks going to be by the presence of walls where there used to be none? People hate even having to enter user names and passwords. How do you think they’ll feel about punching in their credit card numbers?

So, um, can we try that whole free business model thing for a while longer? Please? It works for me.