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Remind Us – Why Does Hulu Exist, Exactly?

Are we all still clear on Hulu’s reason for being?

I’m not sure I am anymore.

The more streaming services the various media titans roll out or announce for the near distant future, the less certain I am that Hulu has a place in their long term plans.

Which seems a like a major lost opportunity, if not a huge miscalculation of an asset they’ve all built together.

I ask this after the news last week that NBCUniversal (OH – Original Hulu) is planning a free, ad-supported service in 2020.

Put aside that fact that waiting a full year to launch a streaming service will leave Netflix room to launch seven “Bird Box” sequels during the wait.

If NBCU gets its streaming service rolling, where does that leave Hulu?

On the surface, it shouldn’t change much. The new NBCUflix will let pay TV subscribers watch shows with ads (which is already true for NBCU’s websites and apps).

Meanwhile, NBCU parent Comcast still owns a stake in Hulu – but it’s soon to be Disney’s toy to play with.

And what’s Disney doing but launching its own streaming Netflix killer? As is Warner Media – a soon to be ex Hulu stakeholder.

Sure, I suppose all these services could find their audiences and individually thrive. But you have to wonder where big media companies will put their priorities, resources, talent, best shows, etc – toward their new products, or toward Hulu, which they kinda own.

The biggest head-scratcher for me is Disney’s decision to roll out Disney+ for families, while keeping Hulu as a separate service for other people. As if parents don’t like binging acclaimed dramas.

But if you have to pay for Netflix and Disney, and maybe HBO, does Hulu not make the cut? It might depend on how much cord you’re willing to cut.

Yet if Disney had used Hulu as a base for rolling out Disney+ (like Warner might, or should do with HBO) then you might have something that would actually make Netflix sweat.

Hulu has a base of 25 million subscribers, and counting. It just ran a massive giveaway over the holidays that should boost that number. Plus there’s the fact that it’s got a brand (people actually know what it is). Hulu gift cards are for sale at Duane Reade and in Sprint stores.

Instead, of leveraging that vibrant brand and robust consumer footprint, Disney will be competing with itself.

To be sure, Disney+ sounds like it will be terrific. But Hulu is already a terrific product. It boasts of a slick interface. Its ad experience is probably as good as it gets in terms of interruptive video ads. It increasingly boasts of high-quality originals shows like the Emmy-winning “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Here’s the thing. If digital media has proven anything, it’s that platforms rule. And Hulu’s been the closest thing the linear TV industry has had to a centralized hub for everybody. It works because it gives you your TV all in one place, regardless of network or studio.

This new wave of media-company-level streaming services is unwisely ignoring that reality. These giant are acting as if consumers actually think about their media consumption through conglomerate lenses- “Hey, I could go for some Warner library content tonight, wonder what’s on the menu?”

That said, Hulu’s menu is good, but not that good. Especially if it starts getting pared down by its parents. Will that happen? Hey, maybe Disney will go all in on Hulu, and provide it with all the resources, funding and attention it needs. Or maybe it gets a bit distracted by its fully owned DTC brands. As might all the other Hulu partners.

Certainly, if you’re a cord cutter and it’s your only way to get some network favorites, sure, Hulu is a must. Yet the options for that audience are increasing by the minute.

Meanwhile, yes, “Handmaid’s” is amazing. But what other Hulu hits are there? Netflix seems to launch something buzzy every week. For Hulu it’s maybe a couple times a year.

Harsh yes, but I think fair.

The more I think about it, the joint venture finds itself in a strange place. Subscribers numbers are growing, but not exactly surging. Its parents are investing more in content, but Hulu continues to lose money – sure, Netflix is burning an insane amount of money ($8 billion a year in originals and counting), but that is providing it with huge defensible subscriber growth, a seemingly endless flow of content and enviable amount of cultural cache.

(BTW, Netflix doesn’t get enough credit for its content. Sure, there are plenty of duds in there. But in the past half year or so they’re rolled out “Wild Wild Country” to “Ozark” to “Bodyguard” to “Narcos: Mexico.” There’s always something).

It’s almost as if Hulu doesn’t burn enough money to compete. Its owners plan to spend $1.5 billion this year on roughly 20ish shows, which feels a bit like spitting in the Netflix wind.

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