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Netflix Races Ahead as Chief Rivals Hulu, Amazon Navigate Exec Transitions

Hulu And Amazon Studios lost two top executives this month for two very different reasons: Roy Price stepped down from his role as head of Amazon Studios on Oct. 17 after being accused of sexually harassing the producer of one of his shows; a week later, Mike Hopkins left his post as Hulu CEO to become chairman of Sony Pictures Television.

Different circumstances, same result: With Netflix boasting 53 million domestic subscribers and bragging it will spend $8 billion on content next year, these top-of-the-org-chart changes raise significant, even existential questions about its two biggest direct competitors.

Hopkins’ departure from Hulu came at an odd moment — a triumphant one. In September, the streaming service took home eight Primetime Emmys, including the award for best drama series. It was the first time any streaming original show had won the high-profile trophy. In the summer, Hulu launched its live-TV service, stepping into a crowded space that also includes skinny-bundle offerings from DirecTV, Dish, Sony and YouTube. (Neither Hulu nor any of the other digital MVPDs has released subscriber info, but analysts peg the total number of subscriptions across all services in the low-seven-figure range.)

Randy Freer is taking over for Hopkins as CEO of Hulu. Like his predecessor, he is a veteran of Fox, which, alongside the Walt Disney Co., Comcast and Time Warner, holds an ownership stake in Hulu. The ownership situation has always been a complicating factor for Hulu, with sources telling Variety that Hopkins, who was well-liked by staff, left in part because he had tired of answering to multiple corporate chieftains. That situation is about to get much more complicated. In 2011, to appease regulators looking at the cable giant’s acquisition of NBCUniversal, Comcast agreed to limitations regarding how much authority it could exercise over Hulu. In 2018, those limitations expire — meaning Comcast will for the first time have an active role in management and governance of Hulu. Disney, meanwhile, plans to launch a wholly owned entertainment streaming service in 2019, one that will carry Disney-produced films and to which the company will funnel television series that might have otherwise found their way to Hulu.

In an Oct. 27 letter, Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger noted that Hulu has been aggressive in acquiring off-network rights to series from its parent companies at a time when Netflix and Amazon are devoting greater shares of their ever-growing programming budgets to original series.

“Maybe, just maybe, [there’s] an overarching strategy among Hulu’s owners to lock away as much of the SVOD rights to their content as possible on Hulu,” Juenger wrote, noting that such a plan would offer bookkeeping advantages. He added, “If you were actually trying to grow Hulu, you almost certainly would have a different content strategy” — one that would rely more on originals and less on library content in post-broadcast windows.

Hulu’s executive transition may have been unexpected, but at least it was neat. The same can’t be said for Amazon Studios, where Price was suspended just hours after news broke that “The Man in the High Castle” executive producer Isa Hackett accused him of pressuring her for sex, telling a lewd joke and whispering references to anal intercourse into her ear. Price formally stepped down five days later. The following week, his top scripted-series executive, Joe Lewis, and unscripted executive, Conrad Riggs, left the company. Amazon Studios chief operating officer Albert Cheng was named interim head of the division, and sources tell Variety that he is likely to be given the job on a permanent basis.

Cheng, a former digital executive at ABC, is seen as a dependable leader who won’t expose Amazon to the rumors and allegations that plagued and ultimately brought down Price. But he is not a programmer. With Lewis’ departure, former Fox international TV exec Sharon Tal Yguado — recruited to Amazon earlier this year to head event series — was promoted to lead all scripted programming at the division, reporting to Cheng.

Tal Yguado’s unit had already become the focal point for much of Amazon Studios’ development resources, per a mandate from CEO Jeff Bezos to shift away from niche series such as “Transparent” and toward genre projects with greater potential for broad international appeal. But bringing in a free agent to take over the division has not been ruled out. Among the names being buzzed about for the Amazon Studios job: Dana Walden — though sources tell Variety that no talks between Amazon and the Fox Television Group co-CEO have taken place.

But no matter who’s running Amazon Studios, the entertainment division’s role in the greater Amazon ecosystem is still fuzzy. Even as Amazon expands its product offering and programming, premium video remains ancillary to the greater mission of signing up shoppers to Amazon Prime memberships.

Needham & Co. analyst Laura Martin estimates that premium video is worth about 50 cents to the typical Amazon Prime subscriber — who pays $99 a year for a suite of products, the biggest draw of which is free two-day shipping on all Amazon orders.

“If [premium video is] 50 cents today and I’m right, do they want to turn that into $5 of value or $20 of value? Or is it going to be a loss leader forever, in which case it’s going to be YouTube,” Martin says. “YouTube loses a billion dollars a year for 10 years, and basically [Google] can afford it, because search is great. But it’s not a business. It’s a hobby.”

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