'Handmaid's Tale' Helps Boost Hulu Subscriber Sign-Ups

Courtesy of Hulu
Elisabeth Moss in Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale.'

The Emmy-winning dystopian drama and an influx of 7,500 TV episodes have led to a spike in sign-ups for the streamer.

A dystopian drama starring Elisabeth Moss has done more for Hulu than help it win 10 Emmys.

The streamer's average daily sign-ups are up 98 percent since March, executives at the service shared with The Hollywood Reporter. In that same period, Hulu has broken its record for daily sign-ups seven different times.

"Three or four years ago, Hulu was largely known as that website where you watch last night's TV, but we've actually become a lot more than that," says Hulu's head of experience Ben Smith. "Handmaid's Tale was fabulous in and of itself, but what it also did was open up a conversation about everything else that is on Hulu."

Since Hulu bowed the dystopian drama in April, the streamer has found itself with a watercooler show for the first time in the six years it has offered original programming — a difficult feat given the more than 500 scripted series that crowded the television landscape this year. The momentum culminated Sept. 17 when it became the first streaming service to take home a best series trophy in either the drama or comedy categories.

But Smith attributes interest in Hulu's service to more than just Handmaid's. During the same period, Hulu also launched its $40-per-month live television bundle (which includes a subscription to Hulu's limited advertising tier), began offering HBO and Cinemax as subscriber add-ons, and teamed with Spotify to sell its service to students at a discount. And, he says, since Hulu's redesign this spring, minutes viewed per week has grown by 5 percent.

Sign-ups spiked around three key moments this last year, notes Smith: the premiere of Handmaid's (which also broke records for the streamer in terms of viewership of a single show and completion rates of the second and third episodes), the launch of its HBO add-on ahead of the Game of Thrones premiere, and the days leading into the fall television season, ahead of which Hulu has added 7,500 episodes from HGTV, A&E, Fox and other licensing partners.

Smith calls September "a really remarkable month" for Hulu's growth, saying with a laugh, "We can't even make slides that show engagement and subscription records anymore because they're gone the next week."

Hulu declined to say how many subscribers it has added during the same six-month period in which it saw increased sign-ups. The company stopped revealing subscriber numbers earlier this year, reporting instead that it had 47 million unique viewers.

That number, executives say, carries more weight with advertisers than subscriber growth. But it also benefits Hulu to discourage comparisons to Netflix, which when U.S.-only Hulu reported 12 million subscribers in 2016, had 47 million domestic subscribers of its own (a number that has since grown to nearly 52 million).

The test for Hulu now is whether it can keep the momentum going. The streamer recently inked an exclusive licensing deal for NBC's Will & Grace. And with AMC veteran Joel Stillerman now running the content team, the number of high-profile projects (like Sean Penn-fronted The First from former House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon) is expected to multiply.

Of course, growth comes at a price. BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield estimates that Hulu, which has an annual content budget of $2.5 billion, lost $353 million during the first half of this year, compared to a loss of $195 million during the same period last year. But, CEO Mike Hopkins, recently told THR, "We're just getting started."

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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