CES: Turner, Hulu Execs Talk M&A, International Expansion

John Martin and Randy Freer - Split - Getty - H 2018
Left, Taylor Hill, right, Slaven Vlasic, both Getty Images

Hulu CEO Randy Freer signaled that the company could be interested in expanding internationally as it awaits the outcome of the Disney-Fox merger.

When the Consumer Technology Association first booked Turner CEO John Martin and Hulu CEO Randy Freer for a keynote conversation at CES, only one of the execs had M&A as a talking point. 

But about a month before Wednesday's conversation, Disney announced a $52.4 billion acquisition of Fox assets that would see it become the majority owner of Hulu

So when the duo took the stage during the second official day of the ongoing CES, Martin and Freer were peppered with questions about what the merger of AT&T and Time Warner and the acquisition of Fox means for their businesses. 

"Everybody just wants a little bit of clarity and certainty," said Martin of the transaction involving Turner's parent company, which has been in limbo for 15 months as it awaits regulatory approval. "This can't close fast enough." 

Freer, meanwhile, appeared unconcerned about what will happen to Hulu after Disney becomes a 60 percent owner. "We get to ignore all the noise," he said. "We're right in the middle of everything." 

In the meantime, Freer — who joined the streamer in late October, following the departure of CEO Mike Hopkins for a plum gig at Sony Television — is focused on building an even bigger Hulu. The company on Tuesday announced that it now has 17 million subscribers, up from 12 million in May 2016. "We're becoming very aggressive in our investment, very aggressive in our marketing and very focused on adding subscribers," he said. 

Freer also signaled that Hulu could look to expand internationally in the years to come. The service once had a Japanese product that was sold off, but otherwise has stayed out of the international race while competitors Netflix and Amazon have made significant investments into original programming for local regions. "One of the best things that may come out of this merger is the global footprint," the exec said. "We'll have real opportunities." 

Time Warner became a minority owner of Hulu in August 2016 when it purchased a 10 percent stake. "There are going to be a handful of premium content providers that are going to be able to compete on a global stage, and there's going to be a massive shakeout of marginal players," Martin noted of the increasingly competitive streaming landscape. 

During the wide-ranging chat, Martin also talked up Turner-owned CNN ("CNN is engaging in the way that fans want to consume news, which is incredibly different, based on their age demo") and the benefits of running a lighter ad load ("That's the direction we're going to be moving in").  

Freer, meanwhile, also touted the success of The Handmaid's Tale, which picked up two Golden Globes on Sunday night and was a big driver of subscriptions for the platform. "I told Joel Stillerman, our relatively new head of programming, I said, 'Just pick more of those,'" the exec said to laughs. Freer also noted that it has had an impact on Hulu's corporate culture: "We can aspire to set a much higher bar."