Editor’s Corner—When is Hulu getting downloads?

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Building an ad-supported download feature is likely more complicated than the ad-free alternative. (Hulu)

Downloadable content for offline viewing has proved to be a popular feature on subscription streaming services. Hulu last year announced its intention to offer downloads, too, but it has yet to launch on the service.

In May 2018, during the Hulu 18 presentation in New York City, the company said it would launch the industry’s first ad-supported downloadable content experience during the 2018-2019 upfront season.

“Our launch of the industry’s first ad-supported downloadable content experience is yet another example of how Hulu is innovating viewer-first ad solutions to drive powerful results for brands” said Peter Naylor, senior vice president of advertising sales at Hulu, in a statement. “With downloadable content, we’re offering brands more ways to connect with engaged viewers who love the experience of watching television, wherever they may be.”

Now, more than nine months later and with the 2019-2020 upfront season approaching, Hulu’s ad-supported downloads still haven’t arrived. A Hulu spokesperson said the company is working on the feature but doesn’t have a firm timeline yet.

Without being able to offer subscribers a download option yet, Hulu looks like it’s falling behind its competitors.

For years now, Amazon Prime Video has allowed subscribers to download content for offline viewing—in 2015, the company opened that feature to Android and iOS devices.

In late 2016, Netflix turned on a similar download feature for certain content and has since added extras like smart downloads, which deletes a downloaded episode when a user finishes watching and then automatically downloads the next episode.

Why then, in 2019, has Hulu yet to follow suit? Hulu didn’t elaborate, but the best answer may be that building a download feature that includes advertising is a complicated process.

CBS All Access is a hybrid streaming service like Hulu—it charges a subscription but also includes advertising at its base service tier. Last year, All Access launched an option to download content, but only for its subscribers on the commercial-free tier. That suggests some reticence to attempt putting ads in downloaded content.

Alan Wolk, co-founder and lead analyst at TV[R]EV, said that while offline advertising could be trickier in terms of rights and timing, it’s likely a desirable bit of inventory for advertisers.

“I think it would be good for them because I’m assuming it would be unskippable,” said Wolk. “If I’ve already committed to downloading a show, I’ll probably watch the ad, too.”

But Hulu, and any other platform working on serving ads in downloaded content, needs to ensure those ads are relevant and that they are monetized

Software company Penthera, which has worked with companies including Showtime to enable downloads, has been working for years to perfect technology for refreshing ads within downloaded content. The company has also been working with Google and FreeWheel on the reporting side of the technology.

Josh Pressnell, chief technical officer at Penthera, said Hulu may have unique challenges like deciding whether to launch the feature using only its in-house ad inventory. That could result overly repeated instances of the same ads within downloaded content, which would likely annoy users.

But Hulu and other ad-supported streaming companies also rely on inventory from outside ad networks, and launching a truly viable downloaded advertising feature may rely on those ad networks getting on board with the idea.

Pressnell said that Penthera’s solution for refreshing ads has essentially solved the technical hurdles with ad-supported downloads. But he said that issues remain within the advertising business side of things.

When typical ad-supported streaming takes place, a stream is initiated by the user and then the service contacts the ad server for the inventory. In that scenario, depending on the length of the program, the platform knows if an ad impression was realized within an hour or two.

With downloaded ads, the general monetization viability of an ad clocks in around 72 hours, Pressnell said. Advertisers want to know that someone will watch the downloaded ad within that window and ad networks need Google DSP and FreeWheel to accept post-dated impressions.

Pressnell said that if ad sellers need to start sending ad impressions to devices via download and have to accept that it may not be realized for 72 hours, it creates quandaries about whether to undersell or oversell a campaign while acknowledging that some of that inventory may never be monetized.

There’s also the hurdle of getting accreditation from the Media Rating Council (MRC) and Pressnell said that nobody has earned accreditation for offline ads yet. He said that accreditation is not necessarily required to sell offline ads, but buyers and agencies would likely feel better knowing it’s there.

So, while it’s not for sure that these issues apply to what Hulu is trying to do with offline ad-supported downloads, it is clear that this variant of the feature is more complicated than ad-free downloadable content. — Ben | @fierce__video