Hulu Delivers Stars, Subscriber Insights at Upfront Event

Randy Freer - Getty - H 2019
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Hulu

When Hulu first began presenting at the Digital Content NewFronts in 2012, it largely blended in among the digital providers hawking their programming to advertisers. But Hulu in 2019 stands out on the NewFronts schedule. 

In the last seven years, the streaming service has leaned heavily on its positioning as a place to watch current and library television programming, in addition to original series and films. And its annual pitch shares more DNA with the broadcast upfronts that will kick off May 13 than with the NewFronts, where shortform video takes center stage. Because this is an advertising-focused week, it's also a time when Hulu can emerge from under the shadow of streaming behemoth Netflix, which doesn't run ads. 

Hulu CEO Randy Freer kicked off the presentation by revealing that the streamer has hit 28 million total U.S. subscribers, up from 20 million last year. That's less than half of Netflix's U.S. audience, but Freer touted that the milestone makes Hulu "the fastest growing pay TV provider in America, streaming or otherwise." Factoring in Hulu's multi-profile accounts, the company says it reaches an audience of 58 million ad-supported viewers. 

Throughout the one-and-a-half-hour presentation, executives played up the power of that audience, revealing that Hulu's median viewer is 31 years old and that the audience for the classic comedy Seinfeld is 17 years younger than on traditional TV. 

The company, which is majority-owned by Disney, also leaned heavily on star power to promote its offering. The creators of the comedy PEN15 strutted onstage while "Oops!...I Did It Again" played in the background; Mindy Kaling made a plea for advertisers to support her upcoming comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral; and George Clooney, Kyle Chandler and Christopher Abbott elicited "woos" from the crowd as they bantered about their new drama adaptation, Catch-22.  

Saturday Night Live castmember Kate McKinnon, who stars in Hulu's upcoming Theranos drama The Dropout, closed out the show. "I just want more time," she said to being able to develop the character with a project longer than an SNL skit. "And that's why Hulu has ordered 600 episodes." 

All in on the Binge

In the early days of Hulu originals, the company tried out a weekly release model with its shows. But recent the comedies Shrill, PEN15 and Ramy were released all at once for a Netflix-style binge. Now, Hulu is also promoting binge watching as a bonus for marketers, who through a new ad experience will be able to target power viewers with ad formats relevant to how they are watching. Examples shared onstage include sponsoring an ad-free episode of programming or offering perks to viewers. Head of advertising sales Peter Naylor described the new product as "future-proofing TV advertising." 

The Disney-ification of Hulu

Three months after it announced a four-show animated Marvel comedy slate, Hulu added a pair of live-action dramas from the Disney-owned brand. Ghost Rider and Helstrom join a programming slate that also already features the comic book giant's Runaways, which is heading into its third season. That gives Hulu seven — yes, seven — shows from Marvel Television. Meanwhile, Disney assumed a controlling 60 percent interest in Hulu after its acquisition of the Fox assets. Outside of the corporate synergy, Hulu's comedy brand remains hot, with PEN15 and Ramy scoring second-season renewals. And Hulu has also nabbed what could become its Big Little Lies, an adaptation of author Liane Moriarty's Nine Perfect Strangers from Nicole Kidman and David E. Kelley. 

More Subscriber Insight

Hulu is following in Netflix's footsteps and has begun breaking out paid subscribers from its total membership number. The streamer has topped 28 million total subscribers. But with 1.3 million people testing out the service through promotional accounts, its paid subscriber base is actually around 26.8 million. That's slightly less than the 2 million promotional accounts it had at the end of 2018, when it reached 23 million paid subscribers. Hulu didn't disclose exactly how it defines promotional accounts, but the new metrics provide additional context about its base. 

Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.