Hulu experienced a transformative year in 2017, leading up to the Primetime Emmy Awards that changed everything for the streamer. “The Handmaid’s Tale” won the ultimate prize, Outstanding Drama, giving Hulu the honors of first streamer to take home an outstanding series Emmy — before rivals Netflix and Amazon.
The service also ended the year under new management, as Randy Freer replaced exiting boss Mike Hopkins as the new CEO, while Joel Stillerman left AMC to take on the top programming job. Freer and Stillerman are tasked with expanding Hulu’s scope, and the pressure’s now on to develop more hits that can join “Handmaid’s Tale” in the cultural conversation. But heading into 2018, Freer and Stillerman will also be front and center as the Walt Disney Co. acquisition of Fox’s production assets will include its stake in Hulu. There’s plenty of speculation on what Hulu might be under majority Disney ownership — but for now, at least, Hulu can continue to bask in the “Handmaid’s” glow.
Below, IndieWire continues its series of premium network report cards by looking back on the year in Hulu, and how the year that was will shape the year ahead.
There’s no denying that Emmys and Golden Globes are a major ego boost, but while “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been an awards season success for Hulu, and “Marvel’s Runaways” has enjoyed some success, the same problem faces the platform that faces nearly every other streaming service that isn’t Netflix: Penetrating the public conversation.
“Handmaid’s Tale” did manage to achieve that, but while the dystopian adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel became an iconic symbol of women’s oppression during 2017, it remains to be seen if other Hulu programming can achieve the same goal.
Hulu’s biggest advantage over other streamers is its forever-growing library of classic TV series. While Netflix continues to trim its classic TV offerings, Hulu is bulking up with fan favorites — most recently, all 331 episodes of “ER.” And its selection of current broadcast and cable shows offer a catch-up ability for TV fans.
“Look, it’s a really competitive landscape right now and there’s a lot of user confusion in terms of who offers what. We really want to be a brand that celebrates TV and puts a unique spin on it,” Hulu’s director of brand marketing Michael Schneider recently told IndieWire’s Hanh Nguyen.
Overall Hits and Misses
Because Hulu doesn’t provide ratings, all we have to go on are the decisions Hulu makes when it comes to what stays and what goes. Entering 2018, Hulu has the second season of flagship entry “The Handmaid’s Tale” on the horizon, while its first major drama series, “The Path,” also just launched a third season, and “Marvel’s Runaways” has found enough of an audience with its YA approach to the Marvel universe to be renewed for a second season.
That said, Hulu made some tough decisions with some of its shows in 2017, canceling both the Hugh Laurie-starring drama “Chance” and Julie Klausner’s “Difficult People” without a final chapter. “The Mindy Project,” Hulu’s first high-profile pick-up (following its Fox cancelation), also came to an end — though on creator Mindy Kaling’s own terms — and when “Casual,” the Jason Reitman-produced comedy which was an early critical and awards favorite, returns on July 31, it will be for the show’s fourth and final season.
Right now, there’s only one ongoing comedy on Hulu’s docket: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s “Future Man,” which was just renewed for a second season, and some exciting drama properties on the horizon.
“2017 was definitely a historic year for Hulu,” Stillerman said at the Television Critics Association press tour this January, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” wasn’t just a platforming-defining success, but a year-defining success — however, Hulu needs more than one bold win to cement itself as an essential resource for television fans.
That said, there is plenty of potential on the horizon…
Key Programming in 2018
A major tentpole for Hulu is the much-anticipated “Castle Rock,” based on the work of Stephen King and created by J.J. Abrams. Not much is known yet except for the show’s impressive cast — which includes Melanie Lynskey, André Holland, Jane Levy, Sissy Spacek, Bill Skarsgård, Scott Glenn, and Terry O’Quinn — as well as the fact that “Manhattan” creator Sam Shaw and novelist Dustin Thomason are writing.
“Castle Rock” is currently targeted for Summer 2018, but before that, Hulu will premiere its next high-profile miniseries, “The Looming Tower,” based on the book by Lawrence Wright. “Looming Tower” looks at events in the intelligence community leading up to 9/11 attacks, and comes from executive producers Dan Futterman and Alex Gibney. The cast includes Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Bill Camp and Alec Baldwin in a guest-starring role.
Hulu is also prepping a second installment of the Peabody Award-winning drama series “National Treasure.” Season 2, titled “Kiri,” will center on the mysterious abduction of a young black girl who is soon to be adopted by her white foster family and premiere on April 4.
The service also continues to expand its film slate, including the documentary “March of The Penguins 2: The Next Step” on March 23.
This is where Hulu may stand out the most, as it’s become quasi-essential as a resource for the sort of comedy or drama that viewers had previously taken for granted would be available on Netflix. When Netflix let its deals with studios like Fox and NBC Universal lapse, Hulu became the exclusive home for fan favorite shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “30 Rock” — which partners nicely with its ongoing distribution of currently airing television.
“We’re growing our library of acquired content faster than ever before, and in 2017 alone, we added over 30,000 episodes of content to Hulu, which brings our grand total to 75,000 episodes of television,” Stillerman said. “That is twice the number of episodes available on any other SVOD service.”
At this point, Hulu’s choice to prioritize acquisitions and license series is its most exciting quality, especially as the service has recently pushed beyond standard fare to make shows which were previously unavailable anywhere available for new TV fans to discover. Its most notable recent acquisition: the award-winning 1994-2009 drama “ER,” which defined a generation of television, launched the careers of so many actors and writers, and made NBC a ratings powerhouse all through the ’90s. Right now, a whole new audience is discovering the still-powerful medical drama, and when you look back at how much great television still lingers in a non-streaming purgatory, Hulu’s placement in the ecosystem becomes even more valuable.
The Awards Factor
We’ve already mentioned “The Handmaid’s Tale” a few times, but that’s just how big a deal it is for Hulu, especially as it was the streaming series that did what Netflix and Amazon had yet to accomplish: Beat out traditional broadcast and cable networks to win best drama at the 2017 Emmy Awards.
This year, Season 2 will return to defend its title, and “The Looming Tower” also seems likely to make an impression in the Outstanding Limited Series realm as well, given the presence of previous Emmy winners Jeff Daniels and Alec Baldwin in the cast.
Scandals, or the Lack Thereof
No network is free of potential issues related to its talent, though Hulu has seemed relatively untouched by the sort of sexual harassment scandals that have affected many other series. Perhaps there’s a connection between that and the fact that much of its programming either comes from female creators/executive producers and/or features an emphasis on progressive social politics.
Hulu remains a platform that represents multiple strategies that offer a lot to its subscribers, but while its original programming seems a bit in flux currently, with its comedy roster most in need of some beefing up, it still has many strong contenders that complement its massive library of archival content.
Hulu is also prepping for a big future, including a deal to bring George Clooney back to TV via a new take on Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22” (which Clooney will both star in and produce). Also, Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Television will produce 12 standalone horror stories, each relating to a holiday or a specific time of year. And a new version of “Animaniacs” is on tap for 2020 as Hulu branches into kids programming.
But the big story for Hulu in 2018 will likely be a bit more clarification on the service’s future under majority Disney ownership. Will Hulu be linked to FX as Disney’s upscale, adult-focused premium services? Stay tuned.
2017 Subscribers: 17 million-plus
2017 Emmys: 18 nominations, 10 wins
Additional reporting by Hanh Nguyen.