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Hulu Content Chief Talks ‘Golden Girls,’ Curation Challenges and Live TV

Hulu’s content chief came to the Television Critics Association press tour on Saturday to talk up a 2017 slate featuring ambitious originals including “The Handmaid’s Tale,” season two of “The Path” and the 9/11-themed “The Looming Tower.”

But Craig Erwich had another big score to announce to the crowd in Pasadena, Calif., namely that Hulu has nabbed exclusive streaming rights to all 177 episodes of “The Golden Girls.”

The emphasis on new and old during his brief presentation reflects the juggling act of programming a streaming service that has to have something for everyone in order to retain its paid subscribers. Moreover, the Hulu team is also readying for the service’s evolution to a provider of a cable-like package of TV channels — an iteration that promises to help them even better understand what subscribers are looking for on the programming menu at any given time.

“We are not a linear service defined by one demographic or one brand filter,” Erwich told Variety. “You have to have a lot of different things for a lot of different people.”

Hulu’s original series do aim for a more specific brand focus — but niche they are not. Erwich said during his presentation that the goal is to bring “familiar, powerful and timeless stories to the screen” and “stories that resonate with large audiences, regardless of age, gender, or background.”

He also cited the success of Hulu’s first original documentary, 
“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week,” as a vehicle for driving multi-generational viewing, or what he called “demonstrating the power of our platform and ability to widely share the stories of one generation to the next.”

The job of curating a SVOD library at a time when virtually every TV show ever produced is available is daunting. That’s one reason why “Golden Girls” was a big get, because the 1985-92 NBC sitcom remains a pop culture touchstone and has never been showcased in its entirety on a streaming platform.

“You need to have a pretty wide variety of shows — and then within that we try to have the best shows in each category,” he said. “You want to have the ‘Empires’ and ‘The Golden Girls’ and the ‘South Parks’ because you can’t have everything.”

To that end, technology and data is a friend to Erwich and other Hulu execs in setting priorities and illuminating opportunities.

“Through our technology we can identify what (subscribers’) viewing needs are and make sure we get the right shows to them — if you like this, we think you’re going to like that,” he said. And the data on viewing habits that pours out from the digital platform consistently challenges assumptions.

“People have very diverse tastes,” Erwich said. “There’s a tendency to think the person who watches ‘The Path’ isn’t going to watch (‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’) or ‘South Park.’ And that’s just not true. Or even if they don’t, other members of their family do. So you really have to have good personalization (technology). It’s one of our big efforts and one of the keys to our success.”

When Hulu’s live TV service debuts later this year, subscribers will be able to pay extra to receive live streams of a clutch of broadcast and cable channels, plus each channel’s related on-demand offerings. That will lead to some overlap in the availability of shows that are also carried in the core Hulu library. But as far as Hulu is concerned, the more the merrier.

“As a programmer there will be opportunities in the information we get in terms of what people are watching on live television,” Erwich said.

Erwich’s core focus remains on programming what he calls the “base package — Hulu as you know it now,” he said.

Working in the SVOD environment is in many ways a different animal than programming for a broadcast or cable network, as Erwich did during his 12 years at Fox. But some core aspects of the job are the same, especially the need to find creative ways to get viewers to pay attention to shows, new and old.

“There’s still an old-fashioned showmanship to some of this — that’s the good news because that’s the fun part of the job,” he said.

In other news from Erwich’s presentation:

  • Hulu has given a six-episode order to the detective drama “Hard Sun,” a co-production with the BBC. Jim Sturgess stars in the series from “Luther” creator Neil Cross.
  • Season five of “The Mindy Project” bows Feb. 14
  • Hulu’s decision to rescue the canceled ABC drama “Nashville,” in tandem with cabler CMT, has led to a 40% increase in viewership of all episodes of the show in just the few days since the first new episode arrived on Hulu.
  • Hulu has nabbed streaming rights to all episodes of ABC’s “Black-ish.” As part of that deal, it also renewed the libraries of “Desperate Housewives,” “Body of Proof” and “Private Practice.”

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