Hulu’s increasing investments in programming will include some fresh bets on news and documentary content, Hulu CEO Randy Freer said in an interview at CES this week.
The streaming service is planning for 2020, when “we’re going to increase our original programs,” Freer said, in an ever-more competitive marketplace.
“One of the things we have to really determine is, how does news fit on the platform?” Freer said on this week’s “Reliable Sources” podcast.
He said Hulu definitely sees more opportunities in the documentary space. Two Hulu-backed projects, “Minding the Gap” and “Crime and Punishment” are on the Oscars shortlist in the documentary category this year.
As for other forms of news programming, Hulu is “exploring” those options, Freer said.
Hulu is best known for its on-demand library of network TV shows — everything from “This Is Us” to “Family Guy” — and original series, such as “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
But Hulu — like Netflix and other broad-based streaming services — is something different for everyone, and has to be programmed accordingly.
“We need programming for a variety of customers. That customer that loves anime needs the best anime. That customer that loves adult animation needs the best adult animation,” Freer said.
Hulu also has a cable-like live TV option, which puts added pressure on the site to make sure the servers don’t have hiccups at the wrong times.
In 2018, Freer’s first full year as CEO, he said he immersed himself in the technology part of the business, learning about issues such as buffering and ways to improve the user experience.
“We look at things about how quickly people get to video, how many people come and don’t get to video,” he said. “So there’s a tremendous amount of information and data that will help us really design the next version of Hulu as these things become more navigable, easier to use, and more intuitive.”
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Hulu started as a free, ad-supported way to catch up on network TV shows. In late 2010 it began to move to a subscription model.
In an announcement timed to CES, Hulu said it ended 2018 with 25 million subscribers — up 8 million from the previous year.
Freer attributed this growth to a number of factors, including reduced “churn” (meaning people signed up and stayed subscribed instead of canceling), improved technology, and the popularity of season two of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“All of that, plus a little bit of timing and a little bit of luck,” he said. “And it’s great to be in a space where consumers are moving and trends are moving and you don’t have to fight against the tide — you’re rowing with the current.”
Netflix is leading the pack — by a remarkable distance. But Freer pointed out that many households subscribe to both, and said Netflix’s rise also redounds to Hulu’s benefit.
Much is uncertain about Hulu behind the scenes, given pending changes in ownership. Disney currently owns 30% of the site, but it is expecting to take over Fox’s 30% stake as part of the Disney-Fox asset deal. The companies are awaiting final approvals from regulators.
With Disney poised to own 60% of Hulu, Comcast will hold 30% and WarnerMedia (the parent company of CNN) will hold the remaining 10%.
WarnerMedia has publicly said that it is considering selling the 10% stake. “We’ll see what the future holds” is all Freer would say about that.
But he said Hulu has “great support from ownership” and “great access to capital to continue to invest,” even as analysts raise questions about the amount of money the business loses.
In 2017, the losses stood at $920 million, according to public filings.
“I think ultimately we have to have a path to be a sustainable business, and we’re really working hard toward that,” Freer said. “We think we’re getting to a place where we’re going to turn that around and be able to, over a three or five year window, really make a difference.”