Hulu was never intended to be the "Netflix killer" certain people might've set it up to be. The streaming service officially launched in 2008, just after DVD-by-mail Netflix began offering parts of its library available to stream, but aside from a throwaway original here or there (a la Joss Whedon's "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog"), it was mostly viewed as a repository for TV networks' shows, akin to the networks' own websites, but with a far sleeker user experience.
But a lot can happen in just under a decade. Now, Hulu just might be the thing that kills Amazon Prime in its crib. Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins confirmed the service will be launching its own live TV-over-the-internet package at the company's annual "upfront" presentation to advertisers Wednesday morning.
"We started with college kids streaming 'Family Guy' in their dorm rooms," Hopkins said. "They've grown up with us." By the end of the month, Hopkins said, Hulu will have 12 million paid subscribers (in the U.S.— Hulu is only for Americans), an increase of 33 percent over the 9 million from the same time last year.
That 12 million does pale in comparison to Netflix's 47 million U.S. subscribers, but it's hard to compare Hulu's subscriber growth with Netflix's. Netflix only has a paid option—you don't pay, you don't get the service. Hulu has three tiers: Free, with limited access to programming and a full ad load; a $7.99/mo limited commercial tier that gives you access to everything on Hulu, and an $11.99/mo option with no ads. 30 million people use one of those three options.
Analysts estimate Amazon Prime, which until April was only available as a service that bundled free two-day shipping, ad-free video and music-streaming options for a yearly fee, has around 46 million subscribers, though that doesn't necessarily mean all 46 million are Prime viewers. Aside from a few award wins for shows like "Transparent" and "Mozart in the Jungle," Prime originals haven't exactly broken into the cultural consciousness like, say, "House of Cards" or "Orange Is the New Black."
The 12 million Hulu subscribers are also a combination of those paying for the tier that still offers advertising and those shelling out $11.99 a month for the ad-free experience. We don't know the exact split, but, unsurprisingly for a presentation geared toward advertisers, Hopkins said the "vast, vast majority" are paying for the "limited ads" option and, theoretically, spending that $4 on their products.
The details on Hulu's live TV offering are scant for now — the only words on the single slide shown at Hopkins' presentation were "Entertainment. Sports. News," which encompass the entirety of television's many genres.
"We'll be talking more and more about this with you in the next year," Hopkins said, giving a timeline of about 12 months to close deals with parent programmers NBC Universal, 21st Century Fox and the Walt Disney Company. It's not unlikely that Hulu will play the part of Comcast or Dish or AT&T, using a branded live stream from the networks' owned and operated affiliates like CBS does with CBS All Access, taking the two minutes of commercial time generally allotted to cable companies.
Amazon Prime has long been rumored to be getting its own live offering together. Hulu appears to be beating them to the punch, an advantage afforded to them by virtue of being owned by three of the biggest media companies around.
Sources say that in order to appeal to Hulu's naturally youthful base — the service's median age is a remarkably verdurous 33 — live sports, presumably courtesy of Disney-owned ESPN, will be key, but networks like AMC and FX are also on the list of must-haves. If there's anything Hopkins is an expert at though, it's getting precisely that kind of deal done, other sources noted. And those networks are rumored to be more than happy to enter into those discussions. (Perhaps coincidentally, AMC President Charlie Collier was present at Hulu's presentation.)
The live TV angle is just one prong of Hulu's attack plan to steal hearts and minds from other streaming services. Hulu's spending on original series has skyrocketed over the last two years as they've beaten out other networks and streaming services for projects with heavy hitters attached. First there were comedies like "Difficult People," from Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner, and "Casual," executive-produced by Jason Reitman; and then with dramas like "The Path," starring Aaron Paul ("Breaking Bad") and renewed for a second season, and "11.22.63," the limited series starring James Franco, executive produced by J.J. Abrams and based on Stephen King's novel about a time traveler attempting to stop JFK's assassination.
To this stable, they're adding Hugh Laurie's "Chance," which centers on a neuropsychiatrist played by Laurie, "Shut Eye," about a magician turned psychic (played by Jeffrey Donovan), and a series adaptation of Margaret Atwood novel "The Handmaid's Tale" starring Elisabeth Moss. None of these series would look out of place at a cable net like AMC, USA or FX.
As with Netflix and Amazon Prime, we don't actually know how many people are watching these originals, and Hulu isn't telling yet — though now that they're partnering with Nielsen to measure ratings for connected TVs, we might soon get a better sense of how they stack up against the competition. For its part, Hopkins said Hulu had more sign-ups on the day "11.22.63" premiered than any other in its history — Hulu originals are only available to paying subscribers — and it delivered more streams that week than any other in 2015.
"The n-word at this upfront is 'Netflix,'" Eichner joked, riffing off the kerfuffle over Larry Wilmore's use of the word at the White House Correspondents' Dinner on Saturday.
Milling about in the aftermath of Wednesday's presentation at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, conversation among youthful ad buyers clutching bottles of cold-pressed juice quickly turned to what they were watching. "I spent the whole weekend binging 'Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,'" one said, gushing at length about the chef's travelogue series. "Where's that airing?" their compatriot asked. "Netflix, duh," came the rejoinder.
Well, there's always next year.