With Shows Like Shrill, Hulu Is Proving It’s More Than Just Handmaid’s Tale

NewFronts highlights include new George Clooney series and innovative ad formats

The Handmaid’s Tale debuted two years ago this month. Hulu
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Two years ago this month, The Handmaid’s Tale debuted—and changed everything for Hulu. The commercial and critical reaction to Handmaid’s, which became the first show from a streaming service ever to win the Emmy for outstanding drama series, “opened up a completely new door for Hulu as it relates to talent and material,” says CEO Randy Freer. The streaming service’s 2019 slate is a result of that post-Handmaid’s influx of talent: in addition to Shrill, Hulu has also premiered several other critically acclaimed shows: coming-of-age comedy Pen15, Fyre Festival documentary Fyre Fraud and anthology series The Act. Next month, it will air a limited series based on Catch-22, executive produced by and starring George Clooney in his first major TV project since ER. “We’re really trying to pick shows that will have cultural relevance,” says Peter Naylor, svp and head of advertising sales.

Hulu will have plenty of momentum to tout to advertisers at its May 1 NewFronts event. Subscribers jumped 40% last year to 25 million, while ad revenue increased 50% to more than $1.5 billion. Based on first-quarter numbers, “we anticipate the same kind of growth” in ad revenue this year, says Naylor, adding that subscribers are watching 20% more content than they did a year earlier.

Execs say there has been no change in Hulu’s strategy as a result of the Disney-Fox merger, which gave Disney a 60% controlling stake in the service. “We’ve been told all along that we’re going to continue to operate as we always have, and that’s what I’m feeling right now,” says Naylor. “We’re still a joint venture”—with Comcast and WarnerMedia—“and my marching orders are to keep building on that momentum and keep going after the market.”

To that end, Hulu is working on new ad formats, including one that displays a static ad when users hit pause and another centered on binge viewing. “These are models that are uniquely qualified to be in the on-demand space, as opposed to just 15s and 30s,” says Naylor. “These situational opportunities are really unique and [something that] you really can’t pull off in a linear environment.”

As the company expands, “we want to continue to resize Hulu,” says Freer. That includes “increasing our ambition,” and starting to focus on Google, Facebook and Amazon as ad competitors, along with the traditional networks. Freer says he’ll be driving home “the size and scope of what we’re doing” at Hulu’s NewFronts event. Between its ambitious content slate, live TV offering and new ad formats, he says, “Hulu is now a major player in the next decade of television.”

This story first appeared in the April 15, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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