Hulu Finally Packs Heat for Its Gunfight with Netflix, Amazon

Commentary: Big-bet scripted original means SVOD category just got more competitive

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The Force is with Hulu.

Enlisting J.J. Abrams, steward of the “Star Wars” franchise, to executive produce what looks to be the streaming service’s first original series with capital-A auspices behind it in “11/22/63,” is a sign that Hulu is at long last aiming to elevate its game.

But even with a content Jedi on board, as Yoda might say, guaranteed success is not.

Hulu has ponied up for what has become table stakes to play in the subscription VOD category: a scripted drama from a pedigreed producer (not to mention Stephen King as well). The only question now is whether it isn’t too late given Netflix and Amazon are already off to the races.

Starting with “House of Cards,” Darth Hastings has set the conventional wisdom that it takes the magic of a big original series to take an SVOD venture to the next level. That memo somehow didn’t make it over to Hulu until relatively recently.

Sad to say but the only great drama Hulu ever created has been inside its own board room, where internal squabbling between its owners and previous CEO, not to mention not one but two aborted sale efforts, could make for a miniseries if CNBC ever wanted to get into scripted TV.

There was a time not too long ago when Hulu was an estimable challenger to Netflix. But for all his visionary leadership, Jason Kilar never saw eye to eye with the conglomerates he reported to, and Hulu’s potential was far from realized.

And yet as persistent as the overhang of Hulu’s palace intrigue has been since launch, its progress is undeniable. There’s a steadily growing subscriber base of over 6 million powered by a solid brand, terrific user interface and an incredible set of next-day broadcast series rights. That’s an enviable foundation to build on…but the blueprints for the rest of the edifice are way past due.

Given the clean-up job current CEO Mike Hopkins was tasked with in the wake of the mass executive exodus that followed Kilar out the door, he probably had limited bandwidth to play catch-up, but the SVOD market isn’t about to take a breather while he gets his bearings.

Since the regime change, Hulu has moved with little urgency at a juncture when torpor couldn’t be more poorly timed: Not only is Netflix barely letting a day to by without demonstrating some sign of incredible momentum but Amazon Prime too has slipped nicely into second gear this year. And yet Hopkins hasn’t demonstrated until now how Hulu is stepping up.

It’s not like Hulu ignored original programming. History has already forgotten that the service was a full year ahead of “House of Cards” with a scripted comedy, “Battleground,” that actually garnered a little critical acclaim but went nowhere. There’s been a steady stream of additional scripted material on Hulu since then all the way up through its first studio project, paranormal comedy series “Deadbeat,” but nothing that has moved the needle the way Netflix has done more than once.

The problem has been that it’s not enough to just do any kind of scripted, particularly of the low-budget variety, and call it a day. As “House of Cards” proved, a project has to be a big bet that attracts big names on both sides of the camera if there’s going to be a big audience. Better to invest heavily in one or two projects than spread the money thinly across smaller efforts, a conclusion Yahoo also seems to have reached given its own decision to continue the NBC comedy “Community.”

The timing of the Abrams announcement couldn’t be better. Later this week Amazon will release “Transparent,” a drama series that wasn’t its first crack at the bat on the original series front but the first that seemed to generate the kind of critical acclaim that has the potential to translate into buzz. Heretofore Netflix seemed to have some kind of exclusivity on that magic dating back to “House of Cards.”

But now Amazon wants to be the SVOD equivalent of Showtime, which proved HBO wasn’t the only one capable of executing originals in a pay-TV category once devoid of competition. Generating quality original series once seemed an expensive overreach, a foolhardy me-too move. Now it feels downright sensible.

And Abrams is the kind of name that’s needed if Hulu wants to gain ground on Amazon and Netflix. There may be no better weapon than a light saber for a company that needs to take big swings.