Upfronts / Newfronts

Hulu Doubles Down on Originals, Promises 'Billions' in Content Acquisitions

'Deadbeat' the Latest Series to Come Back for a Second Season

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Cecily Strong, who hosted the Hulu NewFronts pitch, with Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins.
Cecily Strong, who hosted the Hulu NewFronts pitch, with Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins. Credit: Hulu

There was one thing missing at Hulu's presentation to ad buyers on Wednesday: new shows.

Instead, Hulu did something uncommon in the world of web video, where the concept of "show" tends to be ephemeral: It renewed its slate of original programming, six programs in all, and committed to backing them with marketing on par with cable and broadcast TV.

CEO Mike Hopkins also promised a substantial war chest to pursue more. "Over the next year we will quadruple our investment in original programming," he said, adding that meant that Hulu would be spending "several billion" over the next few years acquiring shows.

Perhaps trying to drive home the idea that advertisers should buy Hulu, which is owned by a consortium of TV companies, more like TV than typical online video, Hulu also pointedly called the presentation an upfront, not a NewFront. (It is listed as one of the Interactive Advertising Bureau's official NewFronts presenters.)

The NewFronts, of course, are web publishers' attempt to win TV ad dollars by aping TV's upfront marketplace. Success has been mixed at best.

The renewals included Hulu's latest, and most popular, show, "Deadbeat," as well as previously announced returning half-hour series "The Awesomes," "Behind the Mask," "East Los High," "Moone Boy" and "Quick Draw."

Hulu previously announced a comedic send-up of the Bravo's "Housewives" series, "The Hotwives of Orlando," which begins later this year. Another previously announced series, a reality-style teen drama called "The Next Step," arrives next month.

Despite the continuity in programming, 2014 is also a reset year for Hulu. Mr. Hopkins started last fall, and its heads of programming and ad sales, Craig Erwich and Peter Naylor, have only been in their jobs for a few weeks.

Mr. Erwich, formerly of Warner Horizon Television, said the priority for 2014 was to find a one-hour series to add to Hulu's stable. "We are going to spend the next few weeks formulating plans," he said in an interview. "What we don't have is a one-hour show and that's the coin of the realm right now."

The video landscape has been turned upside down since Hulu began in 2008. Competitors for new content include not just network and cable TV, but big-spending new entrants like Amazon and Netflix. Hulu is hoping it can broaden create a slate of originals -- augmented with its library of TV reruns -- valuable enough to expand the subscriber base to Hulu Plus, Hulu's $7.99-a-month service. It now has 6 million subscribers. Netflix, by comparison, has nearly 36 million subscribers in the U.S.

Mr. Hopkins, a former TV distribution exec at Fox, told the crowd that like Netflix, Hulu is "currently in active discussions to offer Hulu Plus to cable TV services." Those deals would broaden the distribution of Hulu, which is already available on connected TV devices like Xbox and Roku as well as smart phones and tablets.

Hulu's pitch to advertisers was familiar from previous years: namely, that it offers a much younger audience that broadcast TV (averaging 37 years of age, it said, compared to 55 for TV) and one that is tough to reach through TV, watching an hour or less of TV per had, according to Nielsen.

The company did introduce three new types of ads, including web-like commerce banners pause the show when clicked.

Promoting shows to potential viewers has become a theme of this year's NewFronts, all the more important as consumer choices increase. YouTube, for example, is spending TV-like dollars to promote some of its top stars. Hulu signaled a similar emphasis on marketing at the outset, parking two tour buses wrapped in "Deadbeat" branding outside the Hammerstein Ballroom on 34th Street in New York.

"We are marketing our originals like you would expect cable and broadcast TV would be marketing there," said Mr. Naylor, a former NBC sales exec. "I need the marketing to help create the virtuous circle."

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