Hulu Upfront Hypes 'Handmaid's Tale' Success, Shifts Away From Subscriber Numbers

Hulu 2015 Newfronts - Getty - H 2016
Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Hulu

In a week where most presenters are touting shortform series that, in many cases, will only get made if advertisers back it, Hulu stood out from the crowd. The streamer swaggered into NewFronts on Wednesday with a presentation — notably branded an upfront — that featured spring’s most-hyped new series, the launch of a live TV service and a slate of projects featuring big-name talent. 

Inside New York's Theater at Madison Square Garden, Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins heaped praise on the early success of The Handmaid’s Tale, which has given his nine-year-old streamer its first true breakout six years after it waded into the content production business. And head of content Craig Erwich introduced a string of upcoming projects featuring everyone from Jeff Daniels to Sarah Silverman.

The hourlong presentation was designed to showcase a Hulu that has evolved significantly from its early days as a home for next-day television, a transition catalyzed by the launch of a sexy new redesign, its push into the live television business and its lineup of upcoming originals. 

Here are the highlights: 

No Host Necessary
Hulu went hostless in 2017 following a 2016 presentation presided over by Broad City stars and creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. Instead, the company trotted out a number of well-known faces from its many projects. First up was Handmaid’s Tale trio Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel, who thanked the crowd for “championing provocative stories like ours.” Jeff Daniels, star of the upcoming adaptation The Looming Tower, later noted that the series had started filming that very morning, adding, “I hear it’s going well.” J.J. Abrams, who is behind the Stephen King adaptation Castle Rock, drew laughs delivering a story about the time his now-father-in-law drove him to King’s house in Maine. And The Mindy Project creator Mindy Kaling implored advertisers to sponsor her series because “my wardrobe budget is bananas and we’ve got to make it up somewhere, guys.” Sarah Silverman closed out the morning by promoting her new show I Love You, America by noting, “We did the research. Investing in this show is probably a terrible idea.” 

Exclusives Still Reign
Sure, Hulu is bulking up on its original series and live-streaming channels, but exclusive streaming video deals are still its bread and butter, and it is willing to pay for top projects. In fact, streams of exclusives are up 80 percent, the company revealed. Hulu announced Wednesday that it has acquired exclusive SVOD rights to the highly coveted NBC breakout This Is Us. The announcement drew cheers from the advertiser-heavy crowd. Hulu has also nabbed the exclusive rights to FX’s Atlanta.

Viewers Over Subscribers
Last year, Hulu, which is only available in the U.S., touted its 12 million subscribers. This year, the company has moved away from reporting that figure. Instead, it announced that it has 47 million viewers, 32 million of whom watch via its ad-supported package. The change makes it harder to provide a direct comparison to previous years, or to hold it up against rival Netflix and its 50.85 million U.S. members. A Hulu spokeswoman says that the company's base grew in the double digits last year, and describes the change as providing a more accurate picture of its audience because multiple people can share one subscription. 

A Helping Handmaid
The Handmaid’s Tale was a big coup for Hulu and has been a boon to its business. Hopkins noted at the start of the presentation that the series scored the biggest debut in Hulu history when it dropped three episodes April 26. “With such a powerful and timely story, and an incredibly talented cast, we knew we could create something truly special,” he added, announcing that it had scored an early second-season renewal. Handmaid’s Tale is sure to be the standard bearer for future Hulu pickups, including 9/11 drama The Looming Tower, an adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s 2006 novel, and The First, a near-future drama about the first human mission to Mars. 

All About the Living Room
Sure, mobile viewing is on the rise, but Hulu subscribers are still watching its programs in their living rooms. Peter Naylor, senior vp ad sales, revealed that the living room makes up 75 percent of viewing for Hulu, while mobile and tablets make up 16 percent of viewing and desktop makes up just 9 percent. For that reason, Hulu has struck a deal with BrightLine to expand into e-commerce for the living room. BrightLine’s T-commerce product will serve up interactive ads where Hulu viewers can purchase movie tickets through their connected TVs. Naylor also revealed that the median age of a Hulu viewer is 33 and the average household income is $84,000, meaning it has an affluent group to which it can offer these e-commerce features.