So, this is a longer thread triggered by someone complaining about region locked videos and mentioning Hulu. Settle around, kids...
(I feel like I write a version of this about once every 1-2 years, but I haven't yet written an article or something to refer to. Go figure.)
For context, many moons ago I helped kickstart streaming services as you know them today. Helped as in, probably played a reasonably significant part in it without being able to take credit for anything.
Cast your mind back to a time at which YouTube wasn't yet part of Google. It was a small site that let you upload short form, heavily pixelated videos, of a quality that was usually lower than what your favourite GIF meme sharing site offers.
Google bought it in November 2006. In September or October (I don't recall), I visited the city of Leiden in the Netherlands for a job interview. My soon-to-be team lead demonstrated the product:
The product? An app that after a couple of seconds of buffering streamed a full-length, near TV quality episode of 5th Gear (a show kind of like Top Gear but less crazy). I remember my first words were something like "I'd pay for that".
The startup I was soon to work at was Joost, started by Skype and Kazaa founders Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström. That's where I worked on the P2P video streaming stack powering the platform, and where I learned a lot about the film industry.
First things first: this video is not available in your country is, as probably is obvious to most, about licensing.
What may be less obvious is that licensing video is a very tricky proposition, because it typically consists of many different sources cut together, each of which comes with its own licensing conditions.
When you happen to control everything, you have a measure of control over what goes into the video. And within limits, you can pick contributions with amenable licensing terms.
That's not going to happen with e.g. video you shoot of a crowd. It takes a single person with a licensed song as their ringtone and a phone call at the wrong moment, and you have a problem.
Up until the end of last century, filmmakers didn't pay all that much attention to these issues when shooting - or when they did, the focus was mostly on national distribution. It's much easier, cheaper really, to acquire rights for national distribution.
Part of that is that often times music licensing in particular is granted in bulk to an overseas company, with different companies handling different regions. Securing international rights to a 3 second music clip may require negotiations with multiple entities.
Also, international distribution of films was often more of an afterthought, and staggered months after the national theatrical release.
Funnily enough, it's the internet that broke that.
When you can download an illegal copy of a film now, or wait half a year or more to see it legally...
Anyway, in response to this, the film industry is a lot more careful and prepared now to secure rights to whatever they have well in advance of a semi-synchronised worldwide release.
And as a result, you have the best chances at having a video available in your country when it's either new, or old enough to have entered the public domain. Unfortunately that excludes a lot.
On to an anecdote about Hulu. And Joost.
What Joost did except for delivering outstanding performance for the time was soften up Hollywood. Up until then, video on the internet was all illegal file sharing. They knew they had to bring their videos in a legal, paid form to the internet, but weren't sure how, until Joost came knocking.
Comcast - which is NBCUniversal - and a bunch of other studios supposedly were on the cusp of giving us all their content to stream...
... the provision was that they'd get about 30% of the stock in Joost.
Now I should stress those were company internal rumours at the time. I can't hope to verify them, though other colleagues remember much the same.
And Janus and Niklas? Declined. The reasons are unknown, but presumably they wanted a better deal.
At the time Joost was shopping around for a new CEO, and the top candidate was certain Jason Kilar.
He must have caught a similar rumour, because he very suddenly dropped out of the race. And then became the CEO of Hulu. With Comcast as a founding partner.
Hulu was started without a business model. Joost wanted to go with an advertising route. Hulu, on the other hand, advertised as everything for free.
It was an investment, to crush Joost, and drive us out of the market. And it was successful. It may have been a little too successful, too...
... because, well, before Hulu could introduce a subscription model and generate revenue, it was effectively overtaken by Netflix.
While Joost had other content owners interested, Hulu was a Comcast only party. And the others couldn't risk being left behind, and licensed their content to Netflix.
And this, kids, is how the streaming service fragmentation started.
It was never meant to be this way.
And in some sense, this is why I ended up starting the #interpeerproject - but that's only somewhat related by now. But it's the reason I'm building stuff from the ground up, with streaming large quantities of data over a P2P network. It's got uses other than video.
We had a lot of Apache and Mozilla foundation people there. The app was based on Mozilla, some XUL thing. I didn't really have time to look at it too closely.
A private instance for the Finkhäuser family.