×

What, exactly, is Hulu?

For years, its core brand identity in a nutshell has been: Watch the TV you know and love, streamed over the internet. Right now, analysts say, Hulu’s biggest advantage in the streaming wars is that it serves up most of the scripted programming released on broadcast networks. Yes, it has thrown originals into the mix. But the Hulu value proposition remains tied to traditional TV, as reinforced by its introduction of a live-TV package four years ago.

Over the next few years, Hulu — now controlled solely by Disney — will face an existential crisis on the content front that will amplify the pressure for it to produce a regular cadence of original hits, as it is hoping to establish with “Only Murders in the Building.”

Starting in 2022, NBCUniversal will have the right to cancel most of its content-licensing agreements with Hulu and could decide to bring its programming exclusively to Peacock. Analysts say ViacomCBS (which has launched Paramount Plus) and Fox Corp. (which owns free, ad-supported streamer Tubi) also are likely to claw their programs back from the streamer.

If Hulu loses CBS, Fox and NBC content, “they’ll be hollowed out,” says Colin Dixon, founder and chief analyst at nScreenMedia. “There’s no way Hulu is going to maintain the same appeal.”

The service clearly needs to amass a bigger library of originals. But today, analysts say, Disney isn’t dedicating the kind of investment Hulu needs to go toe-to-toe with major rivals. “They are spending dramatically less than Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon on Hulu-only original programming,” says Jeff Wlodarczak, an analyst at Pivotal Research Group. “[Disney] management appears to not be particularly aggressive trying to expand Hulu programming.”

From the get-go, Hulu has had something of an identity crisis. It was formed in 2007 as a joint venture of NBCUniversal, Disney and 21st Century Fox.

The initial idea was to give the TV networks a digital outlet to monetize their primetime crown jewels, via catch-up episodes online. But the partners, which at one point included Time Warner, disagreed on what Hulu should become. Amid competing agendas, the parties tried and failed to sell the streamer in 2013. Jason Kilar, Hulu’s CEO at the time, publicly clashed with the company’s owners and quit.

Two years ago, it looked like Hulu’s future had snapped into focus. Disney, after gulping down 20th Century Fox, took operational control of the service in a deal with Comcast, which has agreed to sell its ownership stake in Hulu to Disney by 2024 for at least $8.3 billion.

Under Disney’s stewardship, Hulu has gained ground: It grew from 30.4 million subscribers at the end of 2019 to 42.8 million as of July 3. And Disney has found success in bundling the service with Disney Plus and ESPN Plus. Hulu’s business also enjoys a dual revenue stream, pulling in ad dollars for its (relatively) cheap $5.99 monthly baseline subscription plan.

And here was a surprise: For the most recent quarter, Hulu recorded its first-ever profit, thanks to strong ad revenue growth and subscriber gains, Disney chief financial officer Christine McCarthy said on the Aug. 12 earnings call. “Hulu has exceeded our expectations,” she said. Disney execs previously told Wall Street Hulu would be profitable by September 2023.

Still, compared with Disney’s bigger streaming mouth to feed — Disney Plus — Hulu is hampered by its U.S.-only confines in terms of payback on content investments. Internationally, Hulu originals produced within the Disney General Entertainment Content group, including “Only Murders in the Building,” “Dopesick,” “Dollface” and “The D’Amelio Show,” are distributed on Disney Plus as part of the new Star general entertainment offering. But the international rights for some Hulu originals are retained by third-party studios. The upshot: Because Hulu never launched overseas, owing to its thorny multi-owner structure, Disney can’t as easily amortize Hulu content spending across a global footprint.

Kilar, currently WarnerMedia’s chief (who is expected to leave in 2022 after the merger with Dis- covery), says his biggest regret at Hulu was failing to expand internationally.

“I think it’s totally fair to bash, candidly, Hulu’s lack of global footprint that could have been possible starting in 2008,” Kilar said at an investment conference in May.

“Only Murders in the Building” might yield Hulu a nice crop of new viewers. But the problems for the streamer are bigger than any single show. “They need to increase the frequency of the big-buzz hits coming out of Hulu,” says Joe McCormack, senior telecom and media analyst at Third Bridge. “You can’t just ride ‘Handmaid’s Tale.’”

(Pictured above: Steve Martin in Hulu original series “Only Murders in the Buildings”)