Hulu could be an essential streaming service—if Disney figures out what to do with it

April 2, 2020, 7:30 PM UTC

As new streaming competition arrives this summer in the form of NBC’s Peacock and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, is it possible that now of all times is the beginning of Hulu’s golden age?

For years, the streaming video pioneer—founded in 2007, when George W. Bush was in the White House and MySpace was the dominant social media platform—juggled a dual existence. On one hand, Hulu was an upstart streaming service that offered viewers a refreshing new way to consume television shows and movies. On the other, the Los Angeles company functioned as a stopgap for major TV networks—at points NBCUniversal, Disney, Time Warner, and News Corp. owned substantial stakes in the company, and licensed their programming to it—as the incumbents adjusted to a world of cord-cutters and a resurgent Netflix.

Drawing on an extensive library of licensed content, Hulu positioned itself as a cable alternative to catch up on recently aired TV. Netflix meanwhile ushered in an era of binge culture by betting big—then extraordinarily big—on original shows and movies as its own licenses began to expire. For a while, the hierarchy of the streaming totem pole was clear, in terms of both subscribers and impact on the pop culture landscape: There was Netflix, then everyone else.

My, how things have changed. Hulu’s complicated ownership structure has been simplified greatly, and it is now controlled by Disney, which secured a 67% majority stake after it acquired 21st Century Fox last year and struck a deal with AT&T, which bought Time Warner in 2018. (NBCUniversal parent Comcast owns the remaining 33%.). These moves ended the built-in conflict over strategy among Hulu’s numerous owners and repositioned Hulu as one of three streaming services, alongside Disney+ and ESPN+, in Disney’s plan to win the streaming wars.

Not everyone is convinced that Disney knows what to do with its precious new asset. “The launch of Disney+ in the window right after the Disney-Fox deal and the buying out of Hulu shows that Disney doesn’t have a [holistic] strategy,” says Michael Pachter, a digital media analyst at Wedbush Securities. “They could have loaded Hulu right on top of Disney+ and made it a channel, but they continued bulling ahead, building its own infrastructure. Disney+ is fine. But they essentially have two Netflix services. Why not just have the same? There’s clearly no commitment to the Hulu brand or content.”

To Disney’s credit, it has started to make changes at Hulu after an initial period of leaving the streamer to its own devices. After Disney streaming chief Kevin Mayer informed Hulu staff in February that all divisions now report to Disney, the FX on Hulu hub launched a month later. FX, which Disney nabbed in the Fox deal, is one of the most critically acclaimed networks in television. Now all Hulu subscribers get exclusive streaming access to the channel’s content, including beloved series like Sons of Anarchy, American Horror Story, and The Americans. There’s more: Four new FX series won’t air on cable TV at all, but rather Hulu. Ex Machina director Alex Garland’s science-fiction miniseries Devs, which stars comedic actor Nick Offerman, was the first to premiere, in early March. (In response to a Fortune inquiry, Hulu deferred to Disney, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Stealing a page from the Netflix playbook—featuring original streaming content, rather than licensed broadcast reruns—could prove to be savvy. The move certainly comes at a good time: Hulu over the past year grew twice as fast as Netflix in the U.S., surpassing 30 million subscribers, and soon it will set its sights on international territories, where its red rival has dominated. In early February, then–Disney CEO Bob Iger said Hulu would aim to launch abroad in 2021, following the international debut of Disney+ this year. It’s likely that launch would include a bundle of Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu—a three-pronged tactic, currently available in the U.S., intended to attract families, adult viewers interested in FX, and sports fans.

“If you roll out where Hulu isn’t, you can piggy back. You can say, ‘Hey, we’re offering Hulu as a bundle,’” says Dan Rayburn, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan focused on digital video and streaming. “Getting Disney+ in first—and I don’t want to call it a Trojan horse, because Disney+ is a great service in its own right—helps Hulu. As opposed to rolling out Hulu and saying, ‘By the way, we have Disney+.’”

Whatever the synergies from a sales perspective, there remains work to integrate the services on a technical level, Pachter says: “I am a Hulu subscriber and a Disney+ subscriber. They each have my email address, and they each email me a lot, but they haven’t figured out I subscribe to both. I’ve yet to be offered an ESPN bundle.”

But that’s nothing new for a sprawling media company that owns everything from Star Wars to Stumptown. Adds Pachter: “This is classic Disney. One hand doesn’t know what the other is.”

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