Hulu is probably doing better than you thought it was. Check the stats—this week the company announced it has 17 million subscribers, having gained about 5 million over the last year and a half. Check the accolades—the Hulu original The Handmaid’s Tale picked up two Golden Globe awards Sunday night, beating Netflix’s single award for the evening. And check the back catalog—Hulu is now the only streaming service where you can binge 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother, and Living Single, to name a few beloved programs. The 11-year-old company, whose tagline for years could have been I guess since there’s nothing on Netflix …, is finally starting to develop an identity all its own.
And yet just like always, Hulu feels like it might be on the brink of radical reinvention, or collapse. The service, which was jointly launched by Fox and NBC in 2007, and which Disney bought into in 2009, has been trapped in a kind of perpetual defensive crouch for its entire existence, trying to serve cord-cutters while protecting pay-TV’s lucrative walled garden at the same time. CEO Randy Freer acknowledged as much during a CES panel discussion with Turner CEO John Martin. “It was a defense against YouTube at one point in time. Then it was a defense against Netflix. Then a defense against pay-TV erosion. Now we’re in a place where we’ve become very offensive in our investment, very aggressive in our marketing, very focused on adding subscribers.”
But Hulu could be up for retooling yet again, now that two of its owners, Disney and 21st Century Fox, are joining forces in a $52.4 billion acquisition. The combined companies will have majority control of Hulu, leaving Comcast-owned NBC as the odd media giant out. Disney CEO Bob Iger has said the power shift will make it easier to invest in original programming for Hulu and make the service’s management process more “clear, efficient and effective.” NBC might think otherwise—the company has been barred by the FCC and the Department of Justice from influencing Hulu’s management decisions since it was acquired by Comcast in 2011, but those restrictions lift in September of this year. The network is rumored to be launching a streaming service of its own, which would need the kind of exclusive content that’s currently on Hulu to succeed.
For now, though, Freer is all smiles about the Disney-Fox deal. “We get to ignore all the noise,” he said of the rampant speculation of how the merger will reshape TV. “We’ll just be a bigger and bigger part of however those companies come out on the other side.”
A confluence of factors has turned Hulu from a Netflix also-ran to a key strategic asset for Disney and (for now) NBC. Netflix is going all in on original content and abandoning many of the licensed shows that first made its streaming service popular, turning Hulu into the de facto destination for classic TV. Last year Hulu introduced a live-TV service that offers up more than 50 channels for $40 per month. And if the company is lucky, The Handmaid’s Tale will attract more top-tier talent to create other hit shows. (Freer also noted that a “fair amount” of Hulu’s new members in 2017 watched The Handmaid’s Tale first, indicating the show directly drove subscriptions.)
More than anything, Hulu’s biggest advantage going forward is that Hollywood desperately needs to stop Netflix from remaking all of entertainment in its own image. Though the streaming giant didn’t participate in any of the “future of television” panels at CES, Netflix’s dominance shaped every discussion. Martin, the Turner chief, noted that Netflix is now spending about as much on content as all of Time Warner’s television units (Turner, HBO, and Warner Bros.) combined. Nancy Dubuc, CEO of A+E Networks, acknowledged that many of her viewers no longer want to watch ads, an option that Netflix first made feasible. Everyone tripped over themselves to assure the audience that their brand resonates strongly with millennials.
Trying to go it alone against a company that now has more than 50 million U.S. subscribers, a stratospheric stock price, and an implicit directive by investors to keep on spending doesn’t make much sense. And Netflix’s Silicon Valley neighbors are preparing to inject even more money into Hollywood, with Apple budgeting roughly $1 billion for video content this year and Facebook expected to do the same. Strategies like the Disney-Fox tie-up, the proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner, and the doubling down on Hulu are partially about aggressive consolidation, but they’re also survival tactics. “We’re competing in the land of the giants,” Martin said. “If you don’t think Facebook and Google and Amazon are the land of the giants, think again.”
Hulu is uniquely positioned to become a giant in its own right, if it can keep its tenuous Hollywood alliances intact and find more shows that manage to stand out in a glut of content (2017 set yet another record for original scripted shows). Neither outcome is guaranteed, but Hollywood’s sudden urgency in addressing the Netflix threat indicates if Hulu fails, it won’t be for lack of trying.