Unsolicited Advice for Hulu: What the Company Can Do to Compete With Netflix and Amazon's Original Programming
Earlier this month, Hulu debuted the sophomore seasons of two of its original series, The Awesomes (an animated comedy about a ragtag band of superheroes, created by Seth Meyers) and Quick Draw (an oddball hybrid of a Western and improv comedy, from John Lehr and Nancy Hower). Maybe you've heard of them—we checked in on both shows last season—but unless you're a diehard fan of either, it's possible that you didn't know they'd returned, or that they even scored renewals in the first place.
That's not a knock on either show, or Hulu as a whole; The Awesomes is fun and has even gotten better in Season 2, and Quick Draw has its moments. Between those two series and the satirical The Hotwives of Orlando, the Tyler Labine-starring Deadbeat, and the teen drama East Los High, Hulu has built a nice little stable of originals to accompany its slew of foreign imports (Misfits, Moone Boy, etc.) and most of the latest episodes from the big networks here in the United States. Perhaps more importantly, as of a few months ago, the company's premium Hulu Plus service netted its six millionth subscriber, a figure that doesn't include the surely millions of people who visit Original Recipe Hulu without coughing up the cash to hop over the paywall. Despite some of the uncertainty over a possible sale or potential leadership that the company has faced over the last couple of years, things are going pretty good over there.
Nevertheless, this is no longer a world where Netflix stands alone, pumping millions of dollars into original series development to make House of Cards or revive Arrested Development. Amazon made a big push with its second round of publicly released pilots, which yielded the lovely Transparent, Yahoo Screen went all in by saving Community, and something called Crackle keeps earning mentions as if it's trying to convince me that it's a real thing and not a cereal; at the very least, it's the home of Jerry Seinfeld's noteworthy web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. The competition for streaming-platform supremacy is more intense than ever, and right now, Hulu seems content to produce solid and cost-effective shows that aren't out-and-out terrible but also don't inspire rabid fandom or widespread industry acclaim. (If you're really into Deadbeat or something and think I'm totally wrong, please let me know in the comments.)
While decent original programming is something, it's certainly not enough to keep Hulu in the game with all these other players. There's an argument to be made that being THE destination for catching up on recently aired episode is one heck of a business strategy, especially since Hulu already has a framework for ad revenue in place, but as is the case with "real" TV, original programming is where it's at in 2014. So, for a moment, let's assume that Hulu wants to expand its footing in the originals game. What can it do? Here are some pretty obvious—but important—suggestions.
1. Spend more money
Hey man, you have to spend it to make it, ya know? Hulu's original offerings don't look exactly like web series, but they sure don't have the production values of, say, Orange Is The New Black. While The Hotwives of Orlando manages to get away with that due to its "reality show riff" conceit, stuff like Quick Draw and Deadbeat could use a little help in the looks department. It's especially noticeable thanks to the fact that Hulu's originals appear right alongside more expensive series from broadcast and cable, which only further delegitimizes them. Not every show needs to feature Game of Thrones-level location shooting and set dressings, but Hulu pulled in over $1 billion in ad revenue in 2013. There has to some stuck in a couch somewhere, right? And it's not just for the show budgets either...
2. Find a way to attract bigger names
Netflix got to where it is today by throwing lots of money at Media Rights Capital for House of Cards, knowing that the David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and Robin Wright trio would raise viewer interest, and it didn't stop there. Arrested Development had a built-in fanbase and most of its cast members had raised their profiles since the show ended on Fox; Orange Is The New Black creator Jenji Kohan had just come off a long-running show in Weeds; and the company sold Hemlock Grove on whatever brand awareness and value Eli Roth's name still has. Meanwhile, after a somewhat bumpy first go-round, Amazon learned the value of familiarity as well: Its second pilot season offered more shows with more recognizable, respected names (Chris Carter, Jill Soloway, Titus Welliver, and more) and what do you know, the pilots were better received.
There's absolutely no guarantee that paying some famous people to make a show is going to work. After all, lots of star-studded network shows fail. But it's a historically strong strategy, especially for up-and-coming content providers. Big names bring in press attention, which ultimately helps you make better programming. Hulu has done a nice job of trotting Meyers and his creative partner Mike Shoemaker to major events to promote The Awesomes and the company seems willing to trust the visions of smart people like Dannah Phirman and Danielle Schneider (Hotwives), so it's clearly not blind to the importance of hiring talented people and letting them do their thing. Now it should go one step further by trying to build a show around a big-enough star whose presence will make both viewers and the industry take notice (I'd say that said star could work behind or in front of the camera, but the latter would definitely make more of a difference). It's no longer a weird decision for an actor to join a Netflix show, and Amazon is hustling to make sure the same holds true for itself—as evidenced by its just-released third wave of potential new series featuring the likes of Ron Perlman, Chloë Sevigny, Mena Suvari, and more. Bigger and better names generally bring more critical attention and awards buzz, and eventually more ad revenue.
3. Develop a more dramatic show
Look, I'm not here to tell you that dramas are "better" or even more prestigious than comedies because that's a dumb arguments. Unfortunately, recent history tells us that people really sit up and pay attention to networks/content providers when they take a big swing with a drama series. It's the most blatant move to make if you're looking to signal to viewers and industry folk that you expect to be taken "seriously." But in Hulu's case, it's a move that makes even more sense: The company has tried comedies for long enough, and while some of them are fine and even good, they don't appear to be registering on a larger level. Comedy can be cheaper—though not necessarily easier—to produce, but you run the risk of it coming off like mid-level "web" content. Those sorts of connotations aren't helpful if you're trying to improve your standing in an increasingly competitive arena.
Transitioning into more dramatic territory would then perhaps not only bring Hulu more attention, it would also emphasize that Hulu is ready to do something different to draw in new eyeballs or talent. The company has shown a great eye in purchasing more dramatic content from all around the world, even in shows that aren't wholly comedic or dramatic—The Wrong Mans and Rev. immediately come to mind. It wouldn't be so difficult to take a similar approach with a fully original show. There's no need to make some great white male anti-hero drama in an attempt to compete with HBO, but there's also no reason why Hulu couldn't host something like Soloway's Transparent.
More money, bigger names, and maybe some dramatic programming? That's a fairly well-tested recipe for success. It's also not a super innovative strategy, which is why, even though Hulu is already doing pretty well as is, it's interesting that the company isn't following it yet. Industry veteran Craig Erwich was hired in the spring to try to beef up Hulu's original programming slate, but the fact that the company is jointly owned by three major media conglomerates can't make it easy to seamlessly develop and execute a plan. Maybe Hulu will always be stuck with the scrap programs that its parent companies don't want elsewhere in their various networks. Or maybe it would prefer to keep buying other people's content and billing itself as the premiere content library for recent programming. But if Hulu wants to expand its footprint, this is the way to do it. And if the company were to pivot in this direction just a little, and not give up on comedy and licensing and everything else in the process, it could become something really, really valuable.
I want to hear from you folks, though. A couple of questions: 1.) If you can watch shows on Hulu, do you watch the originals? And 2.) Do you think of Hulu as a platform for original programming in the first place?
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