Hulu CEO Talks New Shows, Netflix and the Big Sale That Wasn't (Q&A)

Brigitte Sire
Andy Forssell

"It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride, but everybody ... at both those companies is very genuine and we really want to do this," says Andy Forssell of Fox and Disney's renewed commitment to Hulu.

Over the next six months, Hulu is set to roll out a slate so dense it's dizzying.

There are six acquired series and four more originals in the new programming mix, including Seth Meyers’ animated series The Awesomes and a half-hour western comedy called Quick Draw. The additional entries will join a growing library of some 70,000 TV episodes from 2,500 series as well as what acting CEO Andy Forssell dubs “last night’s TV,” which remains Hulu’s most meaningful differentiator. 

The latest batch comes just weeks after Hulu called off its highly publicized sale process, with its current owners -- 20th Century Fox, Disney and silent partner NBCUniversal -- announcing that instead of selling they would invest another $750 million in the streaming service. Forssell suggests that it was a difficult move to pull out of those talks but that the companies' decision to do so, and then to follow up with a sizable investment, was indicative of their commitment to growth. 

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"I do believe that they're real believers and they said, 'Why are we selling this again? This thing is a great asset,'" Forssell says of the pioneering viewing platform, which rounded out 2012 with roughly $695 million in revenue, up 65 percent year over year, via ad sales and some 4 million Hulu Plus subscribers. 

Ahead of his presentation to Television Critics Association members on Wednesday, Forssell, a Hulu vet who stepped in to replace Jason Kilar as CEO earlier this year, caught up with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss the competition, the programming opportunities and what that nine-figure investment will mean for Hulu users.

THR: Netflix has received a ton of attention of late for its programming strategy, which includes pricey programming with big talent in front of and behind the camera. Any jealousy?

Forssell: I don’t think we get jealous. It’s funny, we’re more cheerleaders for Netflix and Amazon than most people would believe. Sure, we compete in buying content, but we compete very little head to head in terms of users. Ted [Sarandos] and Reed [Hastings of Netflix] have said that several times. They’re more [focused on] HBO. Plus, we’re all involved in the same mission, which is how do you win the battle for screen time? Younger viewers are spending more and more time on Facebook or Snapchat or whatever the latest things are, and all of us are interested in how, for those viewers in particular, we can make it easy, fun and the right choice for them to go watch a traditional TV show versus spending 42 minutes on Twitter. In our case, we do have last night’s TV, so it’s even more important because we’ve got stuff that’s more of the moment.

THR: With the latest $750 million investment, will you be playing in the same sandbox as Netflix?

Forssell: That investment is a great sign of support from Fox and Disney. I don’t think it changes the mix of what we do -- it just lets us be a little more aggressive across the board in all those categories. I don’t look at that and say, "Oh my gosh, we’re going to skew towards originals…"

THR: So we shouldn’t expect to see you plunk down $100 million on a high-profile show as Netflix did for two seasons of House of Cards?

Forssell: It’s a fantastic branding campaign for Netflix. Really smart and really effective. But I think that’s good for what they are. For us, that wouldn’t necessarily be the right path. Will we get more aggressive in each category? Absolutely. But I do think we play in a slightly different place, and it means we have slightly different strategies.

THR: You're set to roll out six acquisitions and four originals later this year. How do you foresee that ratio changing in the next few years?

Forssell: You think about the risk profile of finding something that’s already made that you can watch versus finding somebody at the bible stage or the script stage. There’s obviously a ton more risk in what we call originals. If you could, you’d only license acquisitions because it’s less risky and you could see it, but over time you probably can’t get enough of those. The market becomes sort of more efficient. You have to get good at taking chances earlier, so you’ll see us steer a little bit towards originals because we need to, not because we necessarily want to. We’ve always had a really healthy respect for how hard that is. You see people talking about how Apple should just take all that money they have and make five movies a year; I always laugh and I think the people at Apple laugh, too, because they know you can’t just do that. You’re probably going to make some bad movies.  

THR: When we sat down a year and a half ago, you noted that there was an internal debate about the best way to launch a show: all at once (a la Netflix) versus episode by episode (a la traditional TV). Have you reached a conclusion?

Forssell: We still have those debates. Keep in mind, unlike Netflix, we have two things to decide: It’s how much is on the free service and then how much is on the pay service. And it’s different for different types of shows. The Wrong Mans [a new series created by and starring James Corden and Mathew Baynton] is a good example. It’s a comedy, but it’s very genre-bending in that it’s a thriller, and when you see one episode you just desperately want to press play and see what’s going to happen next. So that’s one where we’ll keep it as one episode a week on the free service, but we’ll put it all up at once on [Hulu] Plus. That way, if you want to go binge, you can. For comedies, that’s less important. The Awesomes, for example, will go live with two episodes, and then we’ll do one episode a week. It’s not a one size fits all strategy.

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THR: You made a lot of noise when you inked a lucrative deal to carry Community a few years back, and then again this spring when you announced you'd air All My Children and One Life to Live. When you look around the domestic landscape for potential properties, what excites you? 

Forssell: I get asked this a lot, and I just don’t think that there’s anything where we say, "Oh my gosh, I wish we could have that." There’s some older stuff that we’re passionate about. I always joke about The Six Million Dollar Man being one of those. We get a number of requests, but the digital rights are somewhat cloudy. We're very forward-looking. I can tell you things that, as a viewer, I personally would love to have. I’d love to have all the HBO stuff, but their strategy is very smart and they’re not going to license it.

THR: What genres have you not yet tackled but would like to going forward?

Forssell: One of them is really smart sci-fi. There’s a thirst for it that’s not being met. Look at the popularity of all the Star Trek stuff or Dr. Who. And then I hate using the term genre-bending because it sounds like industry jargon, but from a viewer’s standpoint, I love things like The Wrong Mans where you can’t categorize it. And on a service like ours, we don’t need to. That’s a plus for us, not a minus, where for a traditional network it could be a minus. How do you market it? How do you do lead-ins? For us, the data will tell us a certain show is the right lead-in. 

THR: Hulu made big news when the sale was called off. From where you sit, what went wrong?

Forssell: I don’t want to go in to detail about it, but I’ll just say that the statements that Fox and Disney made were pretty accurate and forthright. They had the buyers offering more than they expected to get, but I think that just demonstrated the value to them. And through the process, they just recommitted to it and said, "Look, we have viable options here on a sale, but we realized that we have this other option to double down on the business and really grow this thing." I’m sure it was a tough call for them in the end. Everything I’ve seen from the inside indicates that everything they said publicly was pretty heartfelt. So, it’s a bit of a roller coaster ride, but everybody I’ve worked with at both those companies is very genuine and really wants to do this. The investment is certainly one side of that, and you’ll see more over time as we get more aggressive.

Twitter: @LaceyVRose