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Has Hulu (Finally) Figured Out its Special Sauce?

The once-fledgling streamer has found new purpose under Disney's aegis.
  • Hulu's most recent high-profile originals Mrs America, Little Fires Everywhere and Normal People have earned near universal critical acclaim.
    Hulu's most recent high-profile originals Mrs America, Little Fires Everywhere and Normal People have earned near universal critical acclaim.

    For years, Hulu operated as a joint venture between several major media companies, none of whom held a majority stake. All that changed when Disney purchased 20th Century Fox. The acquisition included Fox’s piece of the Hulu pie, which gave Disney a majority stake in the streaming service.

    A month after the Disney/Fox acquisition was finalized, AT&T/WarnerMedia sold back its stake in Hulu, giving Disney an even greater hold on the company. One month later, Comcast agreed to sell its share as well, making Hulu a bonafide Disney asset, and giving the Mouse House full operational control. The end result? After years of lagging behind its competitors in terms of both popularity and critical attention, Hulu seems to finally be coming into its own.

    Sonoya Mizuno and Nick Offerman in Devs. (Hulu)

    Building on the model set by The Handmaid's Tale, the streamer's one true prestige program of years past, Hulu has put out a string of high-quality scripted series over the past few months. From High Fidelity to Devs, Little Fires Everywhere, Mrs. America and Normal People, Hulu's batting ratio for critically acclaimed programming in 2020 is arguably unmatched. It's interesting to note that each of these shows came to Hulu through uniquely different routes. High Fidelity was originally supposed to air on Disney+, but similar to the platform’s upcoming Love, Victor, was ultimately deemed too adult for the company's flagship streaming platform and sent to stream on Hulu instead. Normal People, which has been garnering a considerable amount of buzz in the days since its April 29th premiere, is a co-production with the BBC, while both Mrs. America and Devs came to Hulu as a result of the streamer’s new partnership with FX (also acquired in the purchase of Fox).

    All of which is to say that while some thought Hulu would be dead in the water as the coporate behemoths behind each of the broadcast networks moved to create their own streaming services, Hulu has been given new purpose under the aegis of one such behemoth. What once seemed like an overlooked appendage has become a central part of Disney's streaming strategy. With Disney+ a walled garden for the company's more family-friendly content and ESPN+ its home for sports, Hulu becomes an essential third leg for the company whose assets and aspirations extend far beyond the Disney and ESPN brands. That includes all non family-oriented ABC content (ie, the Bachelor franchise, Grey's Anatomy, Jimmy Kimmel and The View), a treasure trove of prestige programming from FX (including a newly branded "FX on Hulu" exclusivity window on new shows like Devs and Mrs America that won't see those series hit cable until later this year), and ultimately many of the company's non-Disney branded motion picture assets. Perhaps best of all, Hulu becomes a digital sandbox for its deep-pocketed parent company to develop new projects and continue to take the kind of chances on adaptations and international co-productions that Hulu had championed prior to its takeover by Disney.

    David H. Holmes, Zoë Kravitz, and Da'Vine Joy Randolph in High Fidelity. (Hulu)

    Thanks to some well-structured bundles with Disney+ and ESPN+, Hulu has more subscribers than ever, and it is core to Disney's streaming strategy to keep them. Which means more programming is on its way, both in the form of new & returning quality originals and more legacy content from the company's vast back catalogue of films and TV shows. (There's a reason Netflix is spending 15 billion dollars on content this year — it needs to fill its library with backcatalog content before its remaining licensing deals with the likes of Disney and Fox lapse.)

    Oh, and just in case things weren't already looking good, Disney’s expansion plans for Hulu aren't limited to content. The company is also looking to take the streamer international sometime in 2021, which could considerably boost its total subscriber count. In other words, Hulu's future has never looked brighter.

    Alex Welch has written about television and film for TV by the Numbers, IGN, The Berrics, Paste Magazine, Screen Rant and GeekNation. Follow him on Twitter @alexrwelch.

    TOPICS: Hulu, Disney+, FX on Hulu, Netflix, Devs, High Fidelity, Mrs. America, Normal People, Disney