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A Premature Elegy for Hulu, the TV Lover's Streaming Service

Weekly episodes, bountiful reruns — the streamer made its deepest impact by not reinventing the wheel.
  • 30 Rock, Only Murders in the Building, Living Single, I Love Lucy (Photos: Everett Collection/Hulu; Primetimer graphic)
    30 Rock, Only Murders in the Building, Living Single, I Love Lucy (Photos: Everett Collection/Hulu; Primetimer graphic)

    September 17, 2017, was a good night for Hulu. The nearly 10-year-old streaming service ran the table in the drama categories at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards, where its adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale picked up trophies for writing, directing, supporting actress, and lead actress. Then, as the ceremony wound to a close, the dystopian thriller notched the biggest win of all: Outstanding Drama Series, a first for streaming.

    How did Hulu break through where previous efforts by the more ubiquitous Netflix and the deeper-pocketed Prime Video failed? It didn’t hurt that the show was, you know, good (at least in its first season), anchored by the Emmy-winning performances of Elisabeth Moss and Ann Dowd and strikingly photographed by Reed Morano. But the political and cultural winds were blowing in The Handmaid’s Tale’s favor, too: In spite of its harrowing subject matter, the show’s theme of resilience in the face of autocracy served as both balm and rallying point in the early months of the Donald Trump presidency. (Though this aspect of the show would age as poorly as the day’s cringe-worthy “If Hillary was president, we’d all be at brunch” rhetoric.) 

    But the show didn’t just manage to capture a conversation — as weekly installments played out through the summer of ’17, it stayed in the conversation, in ways that all-at-once binge releases from other streamers couldn’t manage. Netflix had three series in contention for Outstanding Drama that year, a crop that included its first stalwart in the category (House of Cards), its most extravagant piece of awards bait (The Crown), and its biggest-ever crowd pleaser (Stranger Things). But none of them made TV history because none of them was as in touch with TV history — the tradition of weekly tune-ins, can’t-miss episodes, and watercooler chatter — as The Handmaid’s Tale.

    Hulu may soon be TV history itself. The pioneer has become a redundancy at The Walt Disney Company, where it hangs like a vestigial limb from the Mouse House’s streaming package, The Disney Bundle. CEO Bob Iger has said “Everything is on the table now with Hulu”: Buying out co-owner Comcast, selling its 66% share to Comcast, folding the whole thing into Disney+. Should Hulu cease to be, what type of legacy would it leave behind? It may be less about what it did first,  and how it approached television as a wheel that didn’t need reinvention. If we remember Hulu at all, we should remember it for being the TV lover’s streaming service.

    It’s in the origin story: Conceived during a post-YouTube gold rush for internet video, Hulu launched as an online destination for full episodes of primetime series from NBC and Fox (and, following an investment from Disney, ABC). It was an evolutionary step forward for an audience that was increasingly accustomed to watching their TV on other devices and their own schedules, whether that meant downloading The Office from the iTunes Store or streaming Gossip Girl on cwtv.com. This free-to-use, always-on DVR delivered new 30 Rocks and American Idols the day after their first broadcast, helping the networks retain a certain number of first-wave cord cutters. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say they were held captive, given the tongue-in-cheek ad campaign the site launched in 2009, a science-fiction twist on a warning that would certainly sound familiar to Hulu’s most active users: Too much TV will rot your brain.

    And Hulu had a lot of TV. A Fast Company writeup from March 2009 touted a library pulled from “120 sources” that included the primetime lineups of Hulu’s founding network partners as well as old favorites (The Dick Van Dyke Show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and classics of a more recent vintage (Arrested Development). These were the types of shows that were swiftly disappearing from linear TV, where 24-hour rerun haven TV Land was devoting more airtime to original programming while its predecessor, Nick at Nite, set the opening of its nostalgia window to sometime during the Clinton Administration. At the time, Hulu was a lifeline for anyone who believed that good TV existed before The Simpsons and Twin Peaks.

    “Hulu is about the shows, not the networks,” then-CEO Jason Kilar says elsewhere in that Fast Company article. “The shows are the brands that users care about.” Prophetic words at the dawn of the streaming wars: As Hulu moved into the subscription business, followed shortly by Amazon, a deep and enticing library became a key selling point. This remained true even when the streamers branched out into making shows of their own: The latest season of a popular series might attract new subscribers, but hundreds of hours of older shows is what makes them stick around. Netflix chased its users’ interest in The Office by licensing the full run of Friends at the end of 2014; in 2015, Hulu volleyed by paying a reported $160 million to bring all of Seinfeld to streaming.

    It was an arms race, albeit one that occasionally carried the whiff of curation. The huge chunk of the 20th Century Fox TV library that Hulu acquired in 2017 meant that subscribers could revisit Glee and Bones on the platform where many had watched the shows for the first time — but it also gave them access to M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, The Bob Newhart Show, and NYPD Blue. Many of the Black-led hits of the ’80s and ’90s were nowhere to be found on streaming for most of the 2010s, an oversight Hulu helped correct by bringing Living Single to the platform in 2018. That same year, another major streaming holdout from the ’90s, E.R., came to Hulu.

    The streamer was bringing finely aged morsels out of the vault for TV lovers to gorge on, all the while encouraging them to savor a growing menu of originals. Netflix irreversibly shifted viewing habits when it first dropped 13 episodes of House of Cards at the same time, but when Hulu started pouring more resources into originals, it stuck to the broadcast formula: A new series might premiere with two or three episodes, but the following week, there’d only be one. And the same the week after that, and the week after that. The idea was to keep the audience coming back, and anticipating, watching at the same pace as your friends, family, and co-workers. “We value the shared experience and the joy of the water cooler that is television,” Hulu exec Craig Erwich told the Television Critics Association in 2015. They’re still applying that approach to the likes of Only Murders in the Building, The Dropout, and Fleishman Is in Trouble — even if The Bear demonstrated that a Hulu show can drum up word-of-mouth buzz with a binge release.

    Today’s streaming landscape looks unrecognizable compared to that of 2017, 2015, or 2008. The joint effort that produced Hulu seems unthinkable now that every media conglomerate — including the two who maintain a stake in Hulu — has its own streaming service. As these platforms summon their IP back to the roost, Hulu’s once-mighty TV library has diminished. It shares custody with former calling cards like Living Single and Freaks and Geeks; Paramount+ has reclaimed longtime Hulu staples I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, and Star Trek — though Frasier and the first four seasons of Cheers remain. 

    To be honest, as of this writing, anyone looking to spelunk through TV history may be better served by Prime Video: Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Hill Street Blues, and NYPD Blue are over there now, too, alongside NewsRadio, Barney Miller, Sanford and Son, Picket Fences, Hart to Hart, and Remington Steele. The rise of free ad-supported streaming television (a.k.a. FAST) services like Pluto TV and Tubi have also delivered on the simple charms of the traditional TV experience Hulu just can’t replicate (at least not without an added monthly fee): The joy of idly flipping through channels and joining a regularly scheduled program, already in progress.

    The competition that puts Hulu at risk could very well keep its TV-loving spirit alive if (or when) Disney pulls the plug. Weekly rollouts have become the norm for Disney+, HBO Max, and Peacock — which might’ve been expected from such legacy media spawn, but even Apple TV+ joined the trend (and reaped its benefits via Ted Lasso). 

    Poker Face’s echoes of Lieutenant Columbo and Jessica Fletcher (and Richard Kimble), in the way The Mandalorian’s rootin’-tootinest moments feel like they could’ve aired in first run syndication during the ’90s, sandwiched between Xena: Warrior Princess and Stargate SG-1 on some local affiliate’s Saturday-afternoon lineup. It might not be Hulu, but it sure feels a heck of a lot like TV.

    Erik Adams is a writer and editor living in Chicago.

    TOPICS: Hulu