Back to the Future: Can Hulu Finally Live Up To The Hype?

This week, Hulu took its shot. Although the streaming platform has offered up a handful of original programs before, the J.J. Abrams-produced James Franco vehicle 11.22.63 is certainly the most high-profile Hulu project to date. Armed with big names like Abrams, Franco, and Stephen King (author of the novel on which the event series is based), a Reddit-ready time travel premise, and solid enough reviews, it’s not difficult to view 11.22.63 as Hulu’s House of Cards.

If Hulu had its way, the chatter preceding 11.22.63’s premiere would center on this potential coming out party. But recently, folks in the TV-obsessed corners of the web were talking about Hulu for entirely different, less celebratory reasons. According to the Wall Street Journal, Time Warner is considering buying a 25 percent stake in Hulu and, in doing so, trying to limit the company’s next-day streaming of new episodes. That’s right; there’s a theoretical future where Hulu simply stops doing the one thing that users want it do, forfeiting its strategic advantage over primary competitors like Netflix and Amazon.

Whether or not Time Warner actually buys into Hulu and/or ends next-day streaming remains to be seen (but for the record: even if the former happens, I don’t predict the latter will). However, that the maybe-possible stock purchase is just as important as the premiere of a tentpole series reflects Hulu’s odd, compelling internal struggle to combine television’s past with its future.

When Hulu launched in 2008, it seemed like a necessary and cool evolution of TV’s migration to the web. The iTunes store and individual network portals were fine, but Hulu offered a one-stop shop of broadcast and cable programming, for free. The initial partnership between three corporate giants—News Corp/Fox, Disney/ABC, and NBC Universal—was and is unheard of, especially for such a transformative venture. Yet, despite the utility of Hulu for (American) viewers, it’s fair to say that the platform primarily served as an attempt by its tripartite ownership to stay afloat amid declining overnight ratings, the proliferation of high-speed internet, and more on-demand options. To that end, it wasn’t surprising that Hulu initially tried simply to replicate the experience of traditional TV in a new space, relying exclusively on advertising to generate any profit.

As an extension of viewers’ jam-packed DVRs, Hulu makes sense. But advertising-only profit models don’t always work, and Hulu unfortunately realized this after the big, hulking Netflix machine began to grow. To Netflix’s credit, it recognized that an unbelievably crowded marketplace, exclusives and originals spoke most to viewers. While Hulu has long held the advantage with next-day streaming, by 2011 Netflix offered more full seasons and series, taking advantage of binge-watching in a way Hulu couldn’t always do with five-to-10 episodes of current seasons. Netflix also benefitted from its less fragile corporate structure, freeing it to make distribution deals with anyone and everyone; Hulu, conversely, had to serve a crew of uneasy masters simply trying to hold on.

That’s not to say Hulu hasn't done some wonderful things over the last half-decade. The company has done a low-key fantastic job of importing international series like Misfits, Rev, Prisoners of War, and an array of anime and telenova offerings. Its documentary and film libraries—complete with a major partnership with the Criterion Collection—has methodically grown into the best of its kind on the web, Netflix and Amazon Prime included. The next-day options are still immense and and Hulu has smartly begun gobbling up the exclusive rights to shows like Fargo, UnREAL, Seinfeld, and Fear The Walking Dead. As a result, the subscription plan has been relatively successful: Hulu had just 5.1 million paid subscribers in 2013, 7.5 million in 2014, and over 9 million as last reported in mid-2015.

But the tension between old and new models of TV has still been there. While Netflix and Amazon started spending like crazy to attract big names and develop splashy originals, Hulu hesitantly tried its hand with mostly fine-to-bad—and most importantly cheap—exclusives. (Do you remember Quick Draw? Me neither, but apparently I reviewed it.) Some of those originals, like CasualThe Awesomes or the criminally underrated Battlegroundwere worth watching, but they importantly didn’t challenge any of the other shows on Hulu—those already owned/produced by Fox, ABC, NBC, and the like.

Meanwhile, though the next-day options have only increased over time, they’ve also been migrated behind paywalls, commonly only accessible to Hulu subscribers or cable customers (well, and those who share passwords). The corporations that own Hulu are so entrenched in generations-long agreements with cable and satellite companies that they no longer want to offer next-day access for free, effectively encouraging further cord-cutting. That’s what makes the Time Warner news not that surprising; Hulu has already been trying to save old TV anyway.

Which brings us back to 11.22.63. While an eight-week event series might not signal to viewers that Hulu is fully ready to take on Netflix, it’s a smart step forward. The subject matter and the King of it all should appeal to a sci-fi-friendly audience, which should at least build the subscriber base a little bit (yes, the show is only available to subscribers; Hulu is learning). More interestingly, Hulu is pushing back against the new normal of streaming releases and offering episodes weekly instead of all at once. That’s a smart strategic choice, especially for a genre show that could foster fan discussion, and frankly, it’s perfect for a platform that has tried to keep the familiar models of TV alive.

If 11.23.63 succeeds—not that we’ll ever know—Hulu has a bunch of interesting projects in the works to build on its momentum, including the Aaron Paul/Michelle Monaghan/Hugh Dancy vehicle The Path and other projects starring Hugh Laurie, Jeffrey Donovan, Susan Misner, and Alex Kingston. Even together, these projects are unlikely to help Hulu catch Netflix as far as revenue or subscriber numbers go. Last time I checked, fewer than 10 million subscribers is just a bit away from 45 million subscribers. 

They also might not stop some of the awkward moments that exist solely because of Hulu's novel corporate ownership. A library dominated by other companies’ programming, even if owned by a corporation that also shares a chunk of Hulu, would only keep Hulu tethered to a different era of TV. But as we've seen with Netflix, Amazon, and all of cable long before them, big original series that garner online and maybe even awards attention go a long way in establishing a company's identity. The industry still loves Netflix and talks about it as a triumph even though the company just recently starting making money. Hulu is primed to offer a library that combines the best next-day options, international exclusives, and buzzworthy originals while also mixing different release schedules and revenue models. And that? Well that's what futuristic dreams are made of—for viewers and Hulu alike. 


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Feb 18, 2016
Nice article Cory.
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Feb 17, 2016
As usual, that's a fairly informative article on the more technical side of "TV" related subjects. Thanks for that, and for the associated links.

As someone not based in the US, I knew very little about Hulu (other than it being yet another one of those annoying region locked platforms). But if it can keep coming up with quality series to rival those of Netflix & Co, then may it grow.

I think it's fine if various services experiment with various release models, but I just wish they'd shown more creativity. Full season all-at-once can be problematic for any ongoing, prolonged discussions about specific episodes, because the binge-watching phenomenon will always be strong (and it puts anyone who doesn't outright swallow a whole new show at a disadvantage). But on the other hand, showing just one episode weekly is generally much more groan-inducing, painful to follow in a reality when one already juggles numerous shows, and makes for a less compelling viewing of any proper serialized narrative (because one simply tends to forget fine details between breaks).
So until somebody decides to try a different approach (be it releasing an episode every 3-4 days, or the like) and play around in order to find a happy medium, I'll take Netflix's model any time of the day.

At some point (sooner rather than later) Hulu may also wish to realize that the rest of the world kind of exists. And that it's a lot of potential revenue regularly being missed out on.
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Feb 16, 2016
Always good to read a piece of yours like this, Cory. I live in Australia so my knowledge of Hulu is limited (and I don't have access to it) but I must admit for me personally as a viewer I think I would probably prefer it over Netflix.

Majority of my television watching involves keeping up to date with what airs, so for me Netflix is useless (and usually if I decide to binge-watch a series I'll wait until it has finished its run I buy it in it's entirety.) So yeah, if I had access to Hulu I'd definitely consider using it.

In terms of original programming I'll admit a lot of it has come out without me knowing, but reading up on it I was surprised that I've also watched and enjoyed a few of them, mainly The Hotwives and Difficult People. The problem I see with these series' though it that they are for a very specific kind of audience and I'm not sure if everyone would enjoy them.

I'm not interested in 11.23.63 very much despite my interesting in sic-fi television - time-travel with a strong focus on history doesn't do it for me. Chance and Shut Eye don't sound particularly good from their log lines but I'd have to wait for their trailers to decide. I'm really looking forward to The Path though. I'm sure Hugh Dancy and Aaron Paul will draw a lot of attention for the series/ network.
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Feb 16, 2016
I don't agree with your description of Netflix as useless. I have seen some of the best TV show in the last years produce by Netflix: Orange is the New Black, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Sense8, Agent Carter... and we also get Better Call Saul, Doctor Who, and many other great TV shows.
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Feb 16, 2016
I love majority of Netflix's original programming (OITNB, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Bojack Horseman are all great) but in terms of my television viewing preferences it just doesn't work. I watch Agent Carter, Better Call Saul, and Doctor Who - but I like to watch them one episode a week as they originally air - not once the season has finished and they finally become available on Netflix.
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Feb 16, 2016
"Even together, these projects are unlikely to help Hulu catch Netflix as far as revenue or subscriber numbers go. Last time I checked, fewer than 10 million subscribers is just a bit away from 45 million subscribers."

Is that 45 millions domestic or worldwide? Because Netflix's available in nearly every country in the world, while Hulu's available in the US. That might have an incidence on the number of subscribers, you know.
But yeah, Hulu, if you're going to try to compete with Netflix, original shows are the way to go.
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Feb 16, 2016
In January 2016, Netflix reported that it had 74 million subscribers, including 44 million in the U.S. The only country where Netflix isn't available is China, North Korea, Syria, and Crimea.

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Feb 16, 2016
Quick Draw was hilarious, and I'm still a little bitter over how Hulu treated that show leaving not only the fans but the shows cast/crew on the hook believing there might be a season 3 for the longest time only to keep putting it off forever until everyone moved on. Not cool...if you are going to cancel something then freaking do it and don't keep dodging the question and leading people on Hulu.
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Feb 16, 2016
Quick Draw was very funny. I think the show works due to the improv.
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Feb 16, 2016
Hulu will remain a "minor" player as long as it keep being restricted to the US. Netflix worlwide strategy is the future imo
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Feb 15, 2016
Really hope Hulu continues next-day airing for CW shows. Watching video on CW.com is a horrendous experience I don't want to relive.
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Feb 16, 2016
I know right? I downloaded the CW app when Cox stopped carrying it for all of a week. I have to agree with all the slow downs( which was a lot) and commercials, I uninstalled it immediately when I was able to watch LoT/Flash on broadcast tv again!
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Feb 18, 2016
Every time I use the app, something goes wrong which restarts the episode. Once the episode restarts, you have to rewatch every single commercial. Just awful.
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Feb 15, 2016
I would like to take a moment and thank Hulu for making Astro Boy available to watch on the internet.

Thank you, guys! :D
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Feb 16, 2016
Recently subscribed to Hulu to watch 11.22.63.... and found out they have Gigantor.... awesome!
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Feb 15, 2016
"The Path" looks interesting and they do have a good selection of anime.
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Feb 15, 2016
For a moment, I thought this was going to be about a Back to the Future series.

Phew! Close call.
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Feb 15, 2016
Hulu as I understand is only in the USA, just a minor actor. Netflix is in the whole world.
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Feb 15, 2016
There's also Hulu Japan, but that's it.
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Feb 15, 2016
"Can Hulu Finally Live Up To The Hype?" what hype? that they've simply been dipping their toes in the the water, that hype? in that regard they've already lived up to it with Difficult People as far as I'm concerned.
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