Hulu’s CEO on Its New Livestreaming Bundle and Getting The Golden Girls

Plus, why he can't save every canceled show

Headshot of Jason Lynch

Between rescuing The Mindy Project, launching an ad-free tier and crafting a solid lineup of original series, Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins has steadily been transforming the streaming service since he arrived in 2013. But 2017 looks to be Hulu's biggest year yet.

Hulu will join the battle for cord cutters and cord-nevers with its own streaming bundle, which will launch "in the next few months," Hopkins said. The competitor to AT&T's DirecTV Now  will be priced under $40 and will include all content that Hulu's current SVOD (subscription video on demand) customers receive in the $7.99 subscription tier.

That launch will  include a complete overhaul of Hulu's user interface, which will usher in several new features for all subscribers. And the service is beefing up its content both on the original side—where The Handmaid's Tale, starring Elisabeth Moss and based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, is already looking like the critically acclaimed breakthrough Hulu has been waiting for—as well as the acquisitions side, where it picked up The Golden Girls, which debuts in February.

Hopkins spoke with Adweek about what to expect from Hulu's new livestreaming service, what he's learned from the ad-tree tier and what it takes for him to consider picking up a canceled show.

Adweek: Why was it so important for you to get CBS onto your upcoming livestreaming bundle, which is a network your competitors don't have?

Mike Hopkins: CBS has the No. 1 network [in ages] 18-54, and they have a lot of really great programming. We're going to make this a sports-centric offering, and if you're going to make that part of your package, you have to have NFL, you have to have the complete March Madness package and all of the other great sports that they have. We thought it would be important to have the big four broadcasters, and CBS certainly rounds that package out for us.

You've also struck deals with Fox, Disney and Time Warner for the new service but haven't announced agreements yet with several other big media companies, including NBCUniversal, Discovery and A+E Networks. Can we assume there will be more news on that front before the launch?

Yes, that's our expectation as well.

You'll also be launching with a cloud DVR, which is a feature that DirecTV Now says it will add at some point in the future.

I think if you're going to have a service that really seeks to be a complete offering for consumers, many of which are used to a DVR, you have to make that part of the offering. We've been working awfully hard this year to get it right and to make it integrated seamlessly into a live and on-demand service. It's really exciting, and I think it's going to work really well. It's going to be fully functional, just like you could expect from a regular DVR.

One of the big criticisms about the DirecTV Now launch was that it was buggy and rushed. You had also considered launching your own service early. What prompted you to hold back a few months until you had more of the pieces in place?

For us, it's even more important than just launching the new service, because one of the advantages that we have is that we've got millions of subscribers already using our platform. And this new user interface will be for both our existing SVOD customers and the new live ones. It's one thing to launch a service with zero subscribers and then offer them a new interface. But we're going to ask our existing subs who like our current interface to try this new one, so we really have to bake it and make sure that it's great. That's one of the reasons that we took a little more time.

You're going to offer different user profiles as part of the new service. Will that feature also be made available to Hulu's SVOD subscribers?

Yes. In fact, at this moment, we've got profiles available on PCs for our customers, and we're rolling that out on an array of devices in advance of the live service launching, so all customers will have an opportunity to make a profile for themselves and their families. It's just rolling through the different devices that we have out in the marketplace. 

Another feature your SVOD competitors have rolled out is the ability to download content to one's device. Is that something Hulu will be offering as well?

Yes, it's definitely on our road map. It's something that we're going be doing in a few months. We're working hard on the technology around that and getting the rights squared away.

Last week's announcement that Hulu had secured streaming rights to The Golden Girls got a huge response online. Even as the streaming services compete for original scripted series, why was it important to pick up a beloved classic like that?

Our team did a great job of really sussing out online, looking at social media, and we realized there was this groundswell of love for that show. You really couldn't get it [online] anywhere else. And so, when the opportunity came up to license it, we pounced on it. It's exciting.

The Handmaid's Tale, coming in April, is getting very strong early buzz. What does it mean to have a show like that on Hulu, especially in the new political landscape we'll be in when it debuts?

What's interesting is I think The Handmaid's Tale novel is one of those pieces of literature that's timeless. It's a relevant piece of material. That's why it's such a beloved novel, and people are still reading it today. For us, it's great existing intellectual property. The writing was fantastic, the cast is amazing, and it looks great. We think it has all of those pieces, and we couldn't be more happy with where it is right now. And we can't wait to get it out to the public.

That's based on a book, but do you feel like if the series is successful, it could go on for several years?

Yeah, there's a lot of good story there, and we're excited to see where they take it.

Hulu rescued The Mindy Project and made the streaming deal to help keep Nashville going. Anytime a show gets canceled, its producers are knocking on your door to get you to pick it up. Why were Mindy and Nashville good fits for Hulu, and what circumstances need to exist for you to consider rescuing a show that was canceled elsewhere?

The first thing is that it helps to start the conversation if we've already licensed the prior seasons. And in both of those instances, well before there was any talk of the show moving from the network to Hulu, we had licensed the past seasons. I think it would be a hard for us to make a show that one of our competitors had licensed the past seasons. For us to make that an original, that would be awkward. But I think if you were to ask [Netflix and Amazon], they'd probably say the same thing. The second thing is it has to be performing well on Hulu relative to the linear ratings. In both of those instances, we found it made sense because we own the back end and that they were performing really well on Hulu. And then, do we think that it has a fan base and audience that will follow the show wherever it's going to go?

It's been more than a year since you launched Hulu's ad-free tier. At the time, you said you were confident it wouldn't cannibalize ad sales. Has that indeed been the case?

It's been interesting. Still, a lot more subscribers choose the version with the advertising than to have an ad-free experience. We believe when we look at our research and the numbers that we're definitely attracting more subscribers to Hulu in general because there are those people who have decided that they just want to avoid advertising. It's not a huge number of people that are willing to pay for it, but we definitely opened up that platform to new customers. And all along, our advertising business has been flourishing. It's been growing aggressively, and we've been able to make a lot of progress against our advertising objectives. So far, a year and three months or so into it, it's been doing really well.

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.