It’s been a big month for FX. In September alone, the channel/brand—more on its nomenclature shortly—has aired a slew of high-profile series: the Clinton-Lewinsky season of American Crime Story, titled Impeachment; coming-of-age comedy Reservation Dogs; supernatural sitcom What We Do in the Shadows, now in its third volume; and the long-awaited adaptation of comic series Y: The Last Man, finally available after years in development. On Thursday, B.J. Novak’s star-studded anthology The Premise adds itself to an already packed lineup, especially by the standards of an outlet that typically practices HBO-style curation by airing just a handful of series at a time.
How one can access these projects depends on a confusing cocktail of media subscriptions. If you’re an FX subscriber who gets the channel in your basic cable package, you can catch Impeachment and What We Do in the Shadows live, or simply DVR them for later. If you pay for Hulu, the streaming service that shares a parent company with FX, you can watch Shadows, Reservation Dogs, Y: The Last Man, or The Premise on demand. But if you subscribe to only the linear version of FX and want to check out Y, The Premise, or Reservation Dogs, you’re out of luck, because those series, developed and branded as FX properties, are exclusive to Hulu. And if you subscribe to just Hulu, you’ll miss Impeachment, which won’t be streaming until 2022 ... on Netflix. (Unless you have Hulu + Live TV, in which case you can stream Impeachment now.)
Like many matters in streaming, this perplexing Venn diagram is the result of high-level corporate maneuvers that eventually trickle down to the everyday user. Back in 2019, the Walt Disney Company completed its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, a merger that came with two significant side effects: bringing FX into the Disney fold, and—pending a buyout of Comcast—putting Hulu under Disney’s control, giving the company another stand-alone service alongside Disney+. To take advantage of its new assets, Disney paired the two together. In March 2020, it launched FX on Hulu, a “hub” where Hulu subscribers can stream archival FX shows (Damages, The Shield), catch up on current ones (Atlanta, Dave), and watch FX on Hulu exclusives that would never be broadcast at all (Devs, Mrs. America). Given everything else that happened that month, the debut went somewhat under the radar.
Technically, FX on Hulu isn’t FX’s first foray into streaming. From 2017 to 2019, the network operated FX+, a service offered through Comcast’s Xfinity where existing subscribers could watch FX titles ad-free for an additional $5.99 a month. Still, FX on Hulu marks the first time FX shows have been widely available to cord-cutters. This development is, in part, a godsend to fans sick of evangelizing shows like Better Things, only for friends to lose interest when they weren’t easy to find. It’s also something of a reversal for FX head John Landgraf, the highly regarded executive who coined the term “Peak TV” and earned a reputation as an outspoken critic of Netflix for common streaming practices like releasing misleading viewership numbers. Now, FX is playing in the same league.
In theory, and often in practice, the FX-Hulu alliance pays dividends for both parties. FX gets a wider platform in an attention economy increasingly built around streaming; Hulu gets a treasure trove of original content, both cataloged and currently airing, to boost its value for potential subscribers. (Considering Disney just hiked the price by a dollar a month, the more Hulu can justify its cost, the better.) FX also helps Hulu further differentiate itself from the more family-friendly Disney+, giving Hulu its own, prestige-minded imprint to mirror the Marvel, Star Wars, or Pixar hubs on its sister service.
But putting FX in a single, convenient place isn’t so simple. Thanks to preexisting rights deals, for example, The Americans—one of the most acclaimed shows in FX history—isn’t on Hulu at all, but instead Amazon Prime. Meanwhile, American Crime Story kicked off in 2016, which is basically the Pleistocene in streaming terms. As such, it’s still subject to an agreement that made sense at the time: a pact with Netflix to host complete seasons after their initial run. In a more vertically integrated age, what was once a win-win now amounts to ceding ground to a competitor.
In a less practical, more existential sense, the hiccups with FX, Hulu, and FX on Hulu speak to some of the tensions at the core of streaming’s expansion. Services like Netflix or Amazon have been versed in digital distribution for well over a decade. But as streaming expands beyond first movers and as old media companies like Disney, WarnerMedia, and ViacomCBS get into the game, potential conflicts come into play. Rather than a simple binary between streaming companies and linear broadcasters, many conglomerates are now both at the same time. Disney, for example, owns channels like ABC and FX and services like Hulu and Disney+, just as ViacomCBS owns both CBS and Paramount+. Ideally, these relationships can actualize hallowed buzzwords like synergy. But when they aren’t carefully managed, these components can be in competition, not working in concert.
This difficult balancing act is at the root of some of the loudest clashes in entertainment, especially as companies face heavy pressure from investors to prioritize streaming over everything else. With the pandemic as catalyst, this dynamic pushed WarnerMedia to give its entire 2021 theatrical slate a day-and-date release on HBO Max, and Disney to provoke the ire of Scarlett Johansson by putting Black Widow on Disney+, potentially damaging her box office back end. Compared to these blowups, the FX-Hulu relationship is positively balmy, but there’s still an unsolved question that drives it. What happens when you take a channel—or really three channels, including FXX and FXM—and turn it into something less tangible? When FX is no longer a setting on your remote but an ambiguous concept that’s sometimes on TV and sometimes on a streaming service, what even is it?
It’s a thought experiment that verges on a Zen koan, but it also has real consequences. At the time of FX on Hulu’s launch, about 84 million households got FX as part of their cable package. As of last month, Hulu has about 43 million subscribers, either as a stand-alone service or part of a discounted bundle with Disney+ and ESPN+. When Disney chooses to make a series like Mrs. America or Y: The Last Man exclusive to FX on Hulu, it’s effectively privileging a group about half the size of FX proper’s subscriber base. That may not matter too much when FX is just a small part of a larger cable package, but it is a risky bet.
FX on Hulu originals also exist alongside Hulu originals, a lineup with some entries that wouldn’t seem out of place on, well, FX. Both Dave and Pen15 make ample use of cringe comedy; both Y: The Last Man and The Handmaid’s Tale are dystopias inflected by gender. The two development slates are managed separately, but the occasional overlap adds yet another layer of confusion to the everyday user. If some FX on Hulu series are exclusive to Hulu, does the average subscriber understand what sets them apart from other shows that match that description?
None of these complications represent a critical threat to FX or Hulu’s long-term viability. They simply illustrate the many kinks in the long, slow process of consolidation and distribution, plus the occasional absurdities of wearing multiple hats (cable channel and streaming hub) at once. And they’re especially visible in a two-week stretch when FX is launching multiple series with as many viewing arrangements. On the other hand, the transition isn’t without its upsides. The more people get the chance to see the inside of a certain Staten Island vampire den, the better.