Who Wants to Be Hulu CEO?

Hazy Future Makes Hulu a Tough Sell to Top-Tier Outsiders

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Andy Forssell has been with Hulu from the start.
Andy Forssell has been with Hulu from the start. Credit: Hulu

It's a plum job at the nexus of TV, the web and the future. But the next CEO of Hulu will face a lot of challenges, not least of which is operating a growing business increasingly in conflict with its owners: Disney, News Corp. and Comcast. So, who wants to be CEO of Hulu?

There is no shortage of hand-raisers for the job, but execs close to the process say Hulu's muddled future would give any superstar outsider pause. The board has still not acted on outgoing CEO Jason Kilar's request for $200 million in additional funding to take on deep pockets at Netflix and Amazon, and a lack of long-term content agreements casts doubt on their level of commitment to the service.

While the networks and Hulu are keeping a tight lid on the process, one name keeps coming up among observers: former News Corp. digital chief Jon Miller, who left the company in August but has the trust of CEO Rupert Murdoch and COO Chase Carey. Mr. Miller said he hasn't yet been approached. Hulu also hasn't appointed a search firm, indicating that it hasn't yet cast a wide net -- even though Mr. Kilar has said he'll leave by April 1.

So far all signs point to an internal pick, which seems likely to be Andy Forssell, Hulu's head of content strategy. Mr. Forssell has been with the company from the start and is effectively Mr. Kilar's No. 2. Hulu declined to comment for this story.

The networks' eventual pick will say a lot about the future of the company. If Disney and News Corp. (Comcast is a silent partner) go with Mr. Forrsell or one of their own -- say, Disney interactive co-president Jimmy Pitaro -- it signals they want to rule Hulu with an iron hand.

Jason Kilar
Jason Kilar

There are factions within Hulu's JV partners who believe the service should be managed to preserve the lucrative cable-TV model, which generates billions in subscriber fees. But that would be a mistake, says Michael Wolf, CEO of media consultancy Activate. "Hulu's owners need continue to deliver a strong user experience," he said. "They need an alternate outlet on the internet for their long-form programming. Otherwise, they will end up with only a few customers: Netflix, Apple and Amazon."

If Disney and News Corp. pick an outsider, it says they want the company to continue to assert its independence, even if that means continued conflict with content owners. Most intriguing would be candidates from outside the media business -- perhaps from the startup world or e-commerce, where data, customer acquisition and customer retention are paramount. Mr. Kilar, for his part, came from Amazon steeped in these concepts.

Content deals and questions over funding aside, Mr. Forssell or whoever succeeds Mr. Kilar will have some challenges to navigate. Hulu dropped to No. 15 among ComScore's top video properties for unique visitors in December, putting it one spot behind IAC's Vimeo. Those numbers do not include viewing on phones, tablets and connected TVs, a growing part of Hulu's business, but it does show that competition for user attention is getting stiffer.

Hulu is still No. 3 in the number of videos viewed and No. 2 (behind YouTube) in minutes per viewer, however, showing that Hulu viewers watch quite a bit of video.

Even if it doesn't have time on its side, particularly, Hulu has built up a lot of scale. The company is likely to book $1 billion in revenue this year, meaning that it is a big business -- one that Disney, News Corp. and Comcast would ultimately be loath to let languish or fail.

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