Hulu celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. In the past decade, the service has boosted its content selection, earned critical acclaim and awards for its original productions and significantly increased its subscriber base. Earlier this year, Hulu surpassed the 20-million subscriber mark, and the variety of its content offering has undoubtedly fueled this growth. Its original productions have created considerable buzz—notably the Emmy Award–winning drama The Handmaid’s Tale. As crucial as the originals are, licensed feature films, TV series, documentaries and children’s programming all play an important role in rounding out the offering and attracting and maintaining subscribers. Lisa Holme, Hulu’s VP of content acquisition, talks to World Screen about the service’s wide range of genres and the strategies used to find programming that will keep subscribers engaged—and coming back for more.
WS: When looking for acquisitions, linear channels generally aim to fill specific time slots or look for slots where they can accommodate a show they want to air. With seemingly unlimited shelf space, what is Hulu’s acquisition strategy?
HOLME: We’re not programming to a time slot, obviously. We make all of the programming available on your own schedule, whenever you want to watch it. We do think about different audiences—all of whom have very distinct tastes and behaviors in terms of what they want to watch on Hulu. So, we think about programming to audiences. For example, you might be a person who watches a lot of competition reality shows with the occasional comedy and drama and movie mixed in, in which case we are thinking about shows that would really appeal to you. Or, you might be somebody who watches mostly high-end scripted dramas, but, from time to time, you might want a movie. We think about different audiences with different taste profiles—do we have the right mix of quality and volume for that consumer’s taste at any given time? And, for that user, have we added anything new recently that might be of interest? So, there is still a programming lens to [our strategy] because we think not only about what we may have available for you to watch right now, which is a variety of high-quality programming, but also, once you’re through watching something, what’s the next thing you are going to watch, and the next thing after that? Are we continuing to introduce you to new programming you are going to love, whether it is new to you or new to Hulu?
WS: What role does acquired programming play in the larger Hulu offering?
HOLME: It plays a huge role. We are known for having the best of everything, and we have the humility to know that programming can come from anywhere, whether it’s something we produce ourselves, something we license from our shareholders or something that we license from whoever has the rights to that show or movie. Licensed content drives a tremendous amount of engagement with Hulu, and that tends to be the biggest predictor of whether you are going to keep Hulu—are you using it enough and getting enough out of it to keep your subscription? We look to licensed content to drive the relationship with our users so that you never run out of things you want to watch.
WS: What role does data play in your acquisitions?
HOLME: Data plays a tremendous role in our decision-making. We look at whatever we can get our hands on to inform the decisions we are making—everything from Nielsen’s ratings data to piracy data to what people are searching for on Hulu to what people are talking about on social media. We look at whatever we can because some of these decisions are quite big bets and we want to be as informed as we can. And back to what I was saying earlier about different users and content tastes, we are drilling down to the subscriber level to ask, Is this programming that will mean a little bit to a lot of people, or a whole lot to a smaller audience? We want some of both, but we want to have a sense of that going in.
WS: Has the high quality of the originals on Hulu, for example The Handmaid’s Tale, impacted the acquisition strategy?
HOLME: We think about how they can complement each other so that we have the best selection of content, whatever the source may be. We think hard about, once people have finished watching The Handmaid’s Tale, what should we try to get them to watch? Sometimes that might be another original like Harlots, or it might be an acquired series or a movie. A lot of people tend to watch comedies after watching The Handmaid’s Tale, as a palate cleanser! There are some shows that inform each other even more closely. For example, we have Castle Rock on Hulu right now and that is based on a lot of Stephen King characters, settings and stories. With that knowledge, we got our hands on as many Stephen King movies as we could. So if you got into a Stephen King mood from watching Castle Rock, you could then watch some of his movies as well. There are times, as in the case of Castle Rock, where [shows can] directly inform [each other], and we use acquired content to build up an even richer experience for somebody who wants to go super deep after watching one of the originals.
WS: How did the decision to acquire foreign-language programming come about?
HOLME: We’ve been importing programming from all over the world for almost the entire duration of Hulu’s existence. The strongest early offerings in the English-language space were primarily out of the U.K. In the foreign-language space, the first offerings were predominantly anime, which is often not what people think of as foreign-language, but we have a very robust anime business on Hulu. We have both subtitled versions that we are releasing at the same time as they are released in Japan, as well as dubbed versions. We have a big catalog of anime.
In what people ordinarily think of as foreign-language or international programming, we have a very robust offering of Spanish-language programming, particularly from Telemundo here in the U.S. From outside the U.S., we have a high-quality drama called False Flag out of Israel. We have Real Humans from Scandinavia, which is what the AMC series Humans is based on. We have Prisoners of War (Hatufim), which is what Homeland is based on. We have the original Bron, which is what The Bridge was based on. So we do have a robust offering of European drama. Sometimes we only have the international show, and when it’s a very high-quality show, what often happens is that it gets remade for the English-speaking audience and that boosts the audience of the original show yet again.
WS: How do movies and documentaries complement the rest of Hulu’s offering?
HOLME: Movies and documentaries are a crucial part of Hulu’s overall content offering. There is an expectation among consumers that a streaming service like Hulu is going to satisfy needs across multiple types of content, whether that’s kids’ programming for a preschooler, a movie that people can watch on a Friday night or a documentary that is going to teach them something. We have a big deal with EPIX for all of the EPIX movies. We also have output deals directly with Annapurna Pictures, NEON, Magnolia Pictures and IFC Films. We also produce original documentaries. A recent one is Minding the Gap. Metacritic posted that over the weekend of August 17 to 19, it was the best-reviewed movie so far in 2018, which is pretty exciting. People who love storytelling love it in lots of different formats; sometimes that’s series, and there are some great series being produced now, but a lot of times it’s movies. We want to be able to satisfy whatever subscribers are in the mood to watch.
WS: How important is children’s programming in attracting new subscribers and keeping existing ones?
HOLME: Children’s programming is also an important part of the overall content offering on Hulu. We know that about a third of our subscribers have kids. We want to make sure that we are serving their whole household, so we have a pretty fantastic offering of kids’ series licensed from Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney Channel. And we have now started producing our own kids’ originals. We have a reboot of Animaniacs coming up. New seasons of Curious George will be exclusive to Hulu, and recently, we announced a partnership with DreamWorks Animation. They will be producing originals for us. We have a lot coming in the originals space to build on the rich foundation we have of licensed programming for kids.
WS: When you are acquiring product, are convenience and ease of use factors in your negotiations?
HOLME: It comes up from time to time. Among Hulu’s unique features are all of the ways you can search and browse for content. For example, you can search for ABC or Disney, brands which you as a consumer know and have an expectation about the kind of content they will offer. We enable that, and all the films from Disney that we have under license will show up in one place on Hulu. Disney likes that because it helps associate their brand with the consumer, and we think it adds value to the consumer as well.
Another example is that we do a fair amount of branding and tune-in messaging for networks. You can catch up on past seasons of a show that is on Hulu and then tune in to, say, FX on Thursdays at 10 p.m. for new episodes. The fact that we do that within our experience is valuable because brands such as FX or Nickelodeon mean something to the consumer. And the folks from whom we are licensing are proud of the brands they have built, so the fact that we serve them within the Hulu environment is often a feature that makes people more interested in licensing content to us.
WS: What are some of the international shows that will premiere this fall?
HOLME: We have a fantastic Australian drama, Safe Harbour, which launched in August. Desiree Akhavan, director of the film The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is the writer, director and star in The Bisexual, which will launch this fall. And we have Love Island, a reality show from the U.K. that is an absolute phenomenon there. It’s released in real time in the U.K., and we get it very quickly thereafter in the U.S. That show has built a tremendous following. In part because of the audience, notoriety and awareness that Love Island has built on Hulu, it is getting remade into an American version.
Producers and distributors attending MIPCOM should think of us as an outstanding U.S. home for the best content that they produce.