If you missed House last week (postseason baseball games shouldn't be allowed to go to extra innings!), you can go get your sarcastic fix on Hulu.com today. The site offers up entire episodes of your  favorite TV shows as ad-supported online streams, and you don't even have to remember whether House runs on Fox, CBS (NYSE:CBS), or NBC. (It's on Fox, for the record.)

The end is nigh
Enjoy it while you can, Fool. Hulu may soon be a pay-for-play site. Today's convenient, all-you-can-eat destination for on-demand streams for free would then become a thing of the past. In fact, Hulu itself would ride into the sunset to sit down with Pocahontas and Marlon Brando and discuss how one of the Web's busiest sites suddenly hit a wall and became a footnote in media history.

Hulu is owned by a media consortium that includes News Corp. (NYSE:NWS), Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS), and General Electric (NYSE:GE) joint venture NBC Universal. News Corp. COO Chase Carey says that Hulu's paid model might show up as early as next year. Judging by these comments, it looks like Hulu's advertising ain't paying the bills here. We've heard that song before in relation to Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and YouTube -- though I'm pretty sure that YouTube is a secret money maker. Google can play a mean game of lowball, too.

The stakes
Consumers clearly crave easy access to their favorite TV shows, or Hulu wouldn’t get any traffic. Hulu attracts more visitors than any of the networks' sites and runs neck-and-neck with Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), according to Amazon.com's (NASDAQ:AMZN) Alexa traffic yardstick.

On-demand television services are the future, if you ask me. Each of the Big Four networks except Fox has decent on-demand offerings through my cable box, and Hulu would lose a lot of its sex appeal if consumers only knew about this resource. Hulu is merely a stopgap solution that serves as a centralized media destination until the one in our cable boxes becomes truly usable. Today's on-demand menus are often confusing, they react slowly to the commands from your remote, and some of the content I want isn't on there at all. (Hey, Fox, I'm talking to you!)

Many fanatical TV fans still don't know what content on demand is, how to use it, or how it would make their lives easier. Until Big Media starts pushing their on-demand offerings for real, and I mean both by improving the service and by telling everyone that it exists, we still need something like Hulu. And it needs to be free.

Don't do it, Captain!
If Hulu goes through with this harebrained plan, it will become a niche player at best. That's if the site provides fancy new features to paying customers like no ads, premium shows you can't get on Hulu today, or backrubs from the stars of The Girls Next Door. Even then, Hulu will not be the fairly mainstream power player it is today. To stay relevant to the mass market, Hulu needs to stay free.

"Free!" is a powerful marketing tool, and I'm not sure Hulu would be this popular if we had to pay for the pleasure. As it stands, Hulu deflects plenty of would-be pirates from total freeloading to giving the studios at least some chance to grab a few advertising dollars. Pulling down the iron curtain of paid content would likely drive many Hulu users back into piracy. All these users want is a no-brainer way to watch the shows they missed or can't otherwise get. I guess we'll see next year, as TV show piracy spikes and Hulu drops off the map.

Do you think Hulu would survive as a pay service? Throw your $0.02 in the comments box below, will ya?

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares in Google, Disney, and Netflix, but he holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. What, three holdings isn't enough for one article? Gimme a break! Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Amazon.com, Walt Disney, and Netflix are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Walt Disney is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and you'll find an on-demand Easter egg in there too. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.