It is looking more and more like 2017 could be the year when Hulu truly differentiates itself from its Big Streaming SVOD peers, Netflix and Amazon.
True, in keeping with the competitive derby among the three, Hulu said it will be doubling its output of original shows, among them freshly renewed critics’ darling The Handmaid’s Tale, and execs have touted exclusive streaming rights to NBC breakout drama This is Us. Because the three are far and away the biggest spenders in the space, media types (myself included) often love to portray the competition as a three-way race.
But that paradigm seems increasingly mistaken. In many respects, Wednesday’s presentation at the Theatre at Madison Square Garden offered a reminder to media buyers facing a head-spinning number of pitches from digital and linear networks that Hulu’s DNA is unique. The company is owned by Disney, Fox and NBCUniversal, with Time Warner controlling a smaller stake. Therefore, it comes at the notion of streaming TV with a different set of goals and a different skill set than its rivals in Silicon Valley and Seattle, respectively.
In reinventing TV, it brings actual TV knowledge. To wit, it knows Madison Avenue will help it grow. Rivals don’t bother with that, since their video programming (for now) remains ad-free. But even allowing for that innate difference, three highlights from the presentation show Hulu dancing to the beat of a very different drum:
- It is committing to a live-TV bundle. Sure, Amazon bought rights to Thursday Night Football and Netflix has flirted with live-viewing concepts but the idea of a full-blown internet bundle is something Hulu is uniquely positioned to pull off. Even as crowded as the space has gotten — with YouTube, Sling, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now and others jumping in — the makeup of Hulu gives it an edge. CEO Mike Hopkins once offered a good-natured, nostalgic chuckle when I asked him about times he used to stash a sleeping bag in his office at Fox, when he ran distribution there. It came in handy during marathon, late-night carriage negotiations. Knowing that turf as well as Hopkins and many on his team do means they know the innards of the TV game. Victory with the $39 bundle won’t come immediately, but this is a company built for the long haul.
- It isn’t interested in playing the subscription numbers game. Departing from recent upfronts, Hulu opted to provide only the extrapolated number of 47 million total viewers, not subscribers. While last year Hulu claimed a dramatic 50% surge in subscribers, clearly that growth wasn’t likely to sustain, and the service is still not even halfway to Netflix’s 51 million U.S. subs. But by refusing to even break it out, explaining that everyone shares passwords and the net number of viewers is a more actionable number, the company sent a clear signal it would do things differently.
- It offers brands ways to innovate. While the disruption of streaming has been defined from the consumer’s perspective, it has potential to disrupt the game for advertisers in fruitful ways. Consider the raft of announcements on Wednesday: Hulu has teamed with Nielsen to provide digital measurement in the living room; It is rolling out new e-commerce capability, partnering with BrightLine; and claimed it would improve tracking of ad effectiveness, via new arrangements with Samba TV and Nielsen Catalina. Hulu’s corporate masters believe its future lies not in going toe to toe with subscription rivals spending many billions on programming, but rather developing crafty ways of delivering brand opportunities. Hulu’s new personalized interface, rolling out for subscribers along with the skinny bundle, offers advertisers placement beyond the 15- and 30-second spots.
I remember watching Fox’s James Murdoch in a fascinating dialogue with David Zaslav, himself a longtime ad-sales vet at NBC before he took the reins at Discovery, talking about Hulu’s strategy at the Paley Center in late 2015. I thought back to that chat frequently during Wednesday’s presentation. “It’s easy for people to look at ad-free services like a Netflix or something like that and say, ‘Well this advertising business is too hard, and no one is going to want that,’” Murdoch said. “I don’t think it’s the right thing for the video business to give up on advertising in any way. I do think it’s something that has to evolve much more rapidly, and we can innovate much faster.”