Is Hulu Ready to Take on Netflix and Amazon?

The streaming pioneer adds star power to juice up its lineup

When Hulu launched in 2008, the ad-supported streaming service wasn't a big priority for owners Fox, Disney and NBC. "It was like, if the ship is going to blow, at least we have an escape pod, but we don't want to equip this escape pod so well that everyone would prefer it to being on the ship with us," Forrester analyst James McQuivey put it.

While Hulu attracts 30 million monthly uniques and 6 million consumers signed on for subscription service Hulu Plus, the company has been surpassed in buzz, breakout content and critical acclaim by competitors including Netflix, Amazon and HBO Go/HBO Now. "Suddenly for Hulu," said McQuivey, "it's either put up or shut up time."

As Hulu prepares for its April 29 NewFronts presentation, it is squarely in the "put up" column, celebrating major coups in terms of both original series (including 11/22/63, a limited series from J.J. Abrams and Stephen King) and acquisitions (exclusive SVOD rights to all 18 seasons of South Park). "We have a mandate to swing for the fences," said Craig Erwich, svp, head of content for Hulu. "There has definitely been a mandate to get in business with the best talent that's available, support them creatively and financially, and be ambitious in terms of talent and creative vision."

To that end, Hulu has spent much of the past six months making one major content announcement after another. The biggest by far was 11/22/63, based on King's best-selling novel from 2011 about an English teacher (James Franco) who finds a time portal and tries to prevent President John F. Kennedy's assassination. There's also Difficult People, a sitcom executive produced by Amy Poehler and starring Billy Eichner; Casual, a comedy exec produced by Jason Reitman; and The Way, a drama exec produced by Friday Night Lights and Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims.

"On the acquisition side, we are acquiring the best of the best," said Erwich, referencing "landmark" SVOD deals for South Park, several present and future FX series (including Fargo and The Strain) and Empire, this season's biggest new series. "So anything we do on the originals side has to measure up."

In the process, Hulu hopes to finally land the signature series that has long eluded it.

"These new shows stand to really crystallize the Hulu brand in the hearts and minds of not only viewers but also advertisers, in a way that Mad Men may have crystallized AMC or what House of Cards did for Netflix," said Peter Naylor, svp, advertising sales at Hulu. "So I couldn't be given a better slate of programming to bring to market, especially in a crowded upfront/NewFronts season where everyone's trying to turn people's heads."

Hulu knows it needs more than marquee names to keep pace with Netflix and Amazon. "Deservedly so, J.J. Abrams and Amy Poehler get you sampled and noticed," said Erwich. "But the shows have to stand on their own."

Of course, when you take big swings, there's the potential for big misses. "Hulu has to be committed to a good couple of big swings in a row," said McQuivey. "And if all of them miss, then you fall back on a distribution strategy."

Not gonna happen, insists Hulu, which just pulled off yet another huge deal last Thursday with Turner, acquiring exclusive SVOD rights to a variety of TNT, TBS, Adult Swim and Cartoon Network series, including The Last Ship, Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Robot Chicken. "We have a lot of momentum," said Erwich, "and we plan on continuing to capitalize on it."