Here come paid YouTube videos, Hulu may follow

YouTube announced that it’s dipping its toes into paid video streaming, and there are signs that Hulu could be next.

Starting Friday, indie film buffs can stream five selections from the Sundance Film Festival for a still-unannounced price. According to the YouTube Blog, independent filmmakers are big contributors to the site’s premium movie offerings, but not all of them are pleased with the ad-supported business model. The five films will be available for purchase using Google Checkout until January 31.

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YouTube also says “a small collection of rental videos from other U.S. partners across different industries, including health and education, will be made available in the weeks ahead.”

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Hulu, meanwhile, may soon charge for older episodes of its free-to-watch TV shows, the Los Angeles Times reports via anonymous sources. Rather than charging per episode, users would have free access to the five most recent episodes of a show, and if they want to watch older episodes, it’ll cost $5 per month for a subscription that applies to the entire Web site.

“30 Rock,” “Modern Family” and “House” are mentioned as participants in the subscription plan, but Hulu reportedly hopes to include at least 20 TV series in the package. Don’t expect an announcement any time soon, though: The Times says a firm pricing model won’t emerge for another six months. Analysts believe that Hulu will soon make a big push onto set-top boxes, and a paid plan will be a big part of that strategy.

Hulu’s plan is creative, but counter-intuitive. After all, you’d be paying for archives rather than new content, so once you’ve plowed through it all, there’s no reason to remain a subscriber. It might be wise to include other perks, such as availability of new shows on the same night they air on television.

As for YouTube, it’s too early to tell what’s going to happen with its paid content. The Sundance films are a welcome experiment, but it’s not clear what other paid content is in the works. In any case, I’d like to see a purchase option in addition to rentals, so that a user could stream premium videos an unlimited number of times from any YouTube-compatible device. Otherwise, there’s little to distinguish YouTube from other movie rental options, including iTunes, Amazon and game consoles.

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