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Hulu Chief Mike Hopkins Moves to Sony Pictures TV, Fox’s Randy Freer Heads to Hulu

In a surprise shakeup, Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins is moving to Sony Pictures Television as chairman while Hopkins’ role at Hulu will be filled by Fox Networks Group COO Randy Freer.

At Sony Pictures, Hopkins will oversee all television operations, reporting to studio chief Tony Vinciquerra. Freer, a 20-year Fox veteran, will take on the job of expanding Hulu’s fledgling digital MVPD service and beefing up its original content offerings.

Hopkins’ departure from Hulu after four years at the top was highly unexpected. Hulu – the 10-year-old venture that is jointly owned by 21st Century Fox, NBCUniversal, Disney and Time Warner – has been on a roll of late thanks to the groundbreaking win last month logged by drama series “The Handmaid’s Tale” at the Emmy Awards. The move to Sony reunites him with Vinciquerra, who was Hopkins’ boss during his previous tenure at Fox Networks Group.

Hopkins takes on the senior TV leadership role left vacant since early last year when Steve Mosko exited as Sony Pictures TV chairman.

“I’ve known Mike for years and can think of no better person to lead our television businesses during a time of such extraordinary evolution and opportunity,” said Vinciquerra. “Mike is a proven and innovative leader who has played a key role in redefining today’s television landscape, both for consumers and for how content producers reach them.”

Hopkins’ move to Sony TV fills the leadership vacuum at the studio and allows Vinciquerra to put his stamp on the TV operations. The studio has seen significant turnover in the past two years with Mosko’s departure and the exits of former production chiefs Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, who moved across town in June to run global video for Apple.

Vinciquerra inherited an unwieldy reporting structure in TV when he took the reins of Sony Pictures Entertainment from Michael Lynton in June. In the absence of a central leader, four departments reported into the CEO: Sony TV’s international networks division, headed by Andy Kaplan; global distribution, run by Keith LeGoy; research, headed by Amy Carney; and domestic production. After Erlicht and Van Amburg departed, Vinciquerra named a trio of executives to run U.S. production: Jeff Frost, Chris Parnell and Jason Clodfelter.

Vinciquerra made it clear that he wanted to take his time in getting know the TV division. Still, few on the lot were aware he was working to recruit Hopkins for the top job.

“Tony has long been a colleague and mentor of mine, and I’m really excited to join him and the rest of the talented team at SPE,” said Hopkins. “There is a tremendous opportunity to build on SPT’s momentum globally and I look forward to working with the team to realize that potential.”

Sony TV is off to a good start to the fall season with its freshman drama “The Good Doctor” doing solid business for ABC. But the challenges of running a large TV studio is much bigger than the broadcast network scoreboard.

Sony TV in the past decade has greatly diversified by producing for cable and streaming services and growing its international reach through its networks and productions such as Netflix’s “The Crown” and Amazon’s upcoming “Electric Dreams.”

The studio’s handicap against its Hollywood rivals is the lack of vertical integration with a major broadcast or cable network. The task ahead for Hopkins and Vinciquerra is to determine how to keep its busy production roster profitable at a time when the economic models for programming are changing, at home and abroad. Sony has also been aggressive in building out its portfolio of international channels but there is also concern that the potential there may be plateauing as streaming competitors become more plentiful in the most desirable overseas territories.

In a statement, Hopkins called his tenure at Hulu “the single-most meaningful experience of my career.” But before he was named CEO of Hulu in 2013, Hopkins worked in network distribution for Fox Broadcasting and the Fox cable group.

Freer was a natural choice as Hopkins’ successor, given his exposure to Hulu through his own position at Fox Networks Group.

“Randy has a unique knowledge of Hulu and expertise building consensus among its owners, and an excellent track record leading a complex organization at the nexus of the television business. There’s no better candidate to lead Hulu as it embarks on its next chapter,” the board statement said.

Freer’s appointment at Hulu marks the second time he’s filled Hopkins shoes. He was promoted to president and COO of Fox Networks Group in 2013, after Hopkins segued to Hulu. Freer has been the top executive overseeing advertising sales, distribution and operations for Fox Broadcasting, Fox Sports, FX Networks and National Geographic Partners. He was also in charge of negotiating rights deals and league-related business for Fox Sports. He is not expected to be replaced at Fox Networks Group, which is headed by 21st Century Fox president Peter Rice.

The distribution background and negotiating skills should serve Freer well as he takes over the responsibility for steering Hulu into the crowded market for OTT skinny bundle offerings. Hulu’s live TV digital MVPD service bowed earlier this year with a base package at $40 a month. There has been no word yet from any of the Hulu partners on the level of subscribers to date.

“Hulu is at the center of transformation in entertainment,” Freer said. “Hulu’s management team and employees have positioned Hulu to be a leader in defining the future of content creation, distribution and monetization – all while putting the viewer first.”

(Pictured: Mike Hopkins, Randy Freer)

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