By Sahil Patel
“Hulu is TV,” said Peter Naylor, head of ad sales for the company, from the stage of Hulu’s fourth NewFront — er, “Upfront.”
The statement isn’t out-of-place for Hulu, which should rightfully be considered a distributor of TV programming much in the same way its competitors Netflix and Amazon are. Even the company’s original series, which span the comedy, drama, and documentary genres, are TV shows in terms of length and format.
Thus, it was more of the same from Hulu at its 2015 upfront event. The company trotted out a long line of big-name talent
to showcase its upcoming crop of original programming as well as a few big past, present, and future TV shows it now has exclusive access to.
On the latter first: Hulu has acquired exclusive SVOD rights to all seasons of “Seinfeld.” The deal is said to be for $180 million (or $1 million per episode), which will be split among distributor Sony Pictures Television, series producer Castle Rock, and others including co-creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David. “Seinfeld” will premiere on Hulu in June.
In a similar note, Hulu also touted licensing deals with networks such as Fox and FX, which are bringing hit TV shows like “Empire” and “Fargo” exclusively to Hulu’s SVOD service. The company also announced a new multi-year pact with AMC for exclusive SVOD rights to future series produced by AMC Networks for AMC, IFC, BBC America, Sundance TV, and WE tv. This deal includes the upcoming “The Walking Dead” spinoff “Fear the Walking Dead.” Full seasons of the shows will be available on Hulu following their network season runs.
Of course, Hulu’s large bet on content also includes its growing slate of original programming. Stars including JJ Abrams and James Franco, Jason Katims, Jason Reitman, Amy Poehler, Billy Eichner, and Julie Klausner, Freddie Wong, and Seth Meyers came out on stage to preview their shows, from the dramas “11/22/63” and “The Way,” to the comedies “Casual,” “Difficult People,” and “The Awesomes” (which was renewed for a third season), to the docu-series “Rocket Jump: The Show.”
Attendees of Hulu’s upfront were also treated to some important company updates. Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins announced that Hulu Plus is nearing 9 million subscribers — and will soon lose its “Plus” tag in a rebrand aimed at pushing the Hulu brand. The increase in subscribers is significant, up 50% from the previous year, Hopkins said.
On the whole, more people are watching content on Hulu. Within the first 90 days of 2015, total streams grew by 77% and
in the same period of time viewers watched more than 700 million hours of content. A lot of this viewership is also coming on devices other than the computer. Hopkins said 61% of Hulu Plus subscribers are streaming on non-PC devices.
On the advertising side, Hulu announced a couple of new products. The company will offer a new ad solution called “custom integrated commercial,” which is a fancy term for Hulu creating custom 30-second spots that align a marketer’s brand with the Hulu brand.
Hulu will also offer programmatic ad buying on its platform, which will use Hulu data and the marketer’s own data to automatically place ads within the right series and episodes.
And finally, Hulu spoke a little bit about its recent deal with Cablevision, which will offer the service to Optimum subscribers in the US area. It’s the first of multiple MVPD distribution deals Hulu plans to announce in the coming year, Hopkins said.
The slate, which the company is dubbing “R29 Originals,” includes 29 shows — natch — in partnership with producers, content partners, and celebrities including Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky, Wifey.tv co-founders Jill Soloway (creator of Amazon’s “Transparent”) and Rebecca Odes, New Form Digital, Planned Parenthood, Mae Whitman, Lena Dunham, Jenni Konner, and others.
It’s a big move into video for Refinery29, which began offering video content last spring with the series “I Am Icon” and “Style Out There.” In addition to those, Refinery29 has largely been known for style and how-to videos for its female audience. That will begin to change as the publisher explores new formats and genres including scripted comedies, dramas, documentaries, and virtual reality.
In scripted, Refinery29 showcased “Her Shorts,” a short-film series in partnership with Planned Parenthood. Told either through a comedic or dramatic lens, each short film will focus on a variety of women’s and men’s reproductive and sexual health issues, and will feature work from creative talent such as Lena Dunham, Emily Ratajkowski, Mae Whitman, Jenni Konner, and Jack Antonoff, among others.
New Form Digital is partnering with Is or Isn’t Entertainment, the production shingle from Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky, on “S*!tty Boyfriends,” a scripted series about a single woman who recruits her web-savvy aunt to help her find love. Executive producers include Kudrow, Bucatinsky, and New Form’s Kathleen Grace. (New Form has a first-look deal with Is or Isn’t.)
“The Skinny,” a dark comedy series about a feminist comedian living in Los Angeles, will be co-produced by Refinery29 in partnership with Wifey.tv. The series is written and directed by, and stars Jessie Kahnweiler alongside Illeana Douglas.
Other scripted shows include “Five Phases,” which will be written by Refinery29 features editor Vanessa Golembewski, and “Throwback,” which will be produced in partnership with World of Wonder.
On the documentary side, Refinery29 is bringing back “Style Out There” for a second season. The series travels the globe to
document different style subcultures around the world.
Refinery29 is also jumping into virtual reality with the series “Fashionably Bound,” which will provide a “stylish journey across continents,” the company said.
Two docu-series will center on a couple of YouTube style celebrities. “Daycation with Evelina” will follow fashion and beauty guru Evelina Barry as she takes day trips in search of food, fashion, and fun in US cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Palm Springs. “Dear LA with Jenn Im” will follow Im as she visits different people and gets their take on style.
Other docu-series include “One Look,” “Get Real,” “We Are the XX,” “Trendsetters of Tehran,” “Sound Off,” “Refined Wisdom,” and “Four Elements of Fashion.”
With all that said, Refinery29 will also continue to publish its popular collection of tutorial videos. Series in this category include “Foodie Prep School,” “Gender Bender,” “Split Second Styling Tip,” “What’s in Your Bag?” with Esther Povitsky, “8 Things to Know,” “Macro Makeover,” “Beauty Prep School,” “A Cut Above,” “60 Seconds to Fit,” “Facetime,” “Hack Your Heart Out,” and “Trend Takeout.”
All R29 Originals will be distributed on Refinery29.com, as well as across the company’s social footprint spanning Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat, among others. The company claims a monthly audience of 25 million visitors to its site, as well as 130 million across all of its platforms and social channels.
At its annual Brandcast event in New York, YouTube added a new twist to the usual messaging about the power of its platform and those who create content on it. This time around, there was a larger focus on how YouTube has helped these creators — whether it’s Grace Helbig, John Green, or BuzzFeed — grow an audience and build a successful business.
“My YouTube community is my core,” said Helbig, who recounted her decision to leave her popular DailyGrace channel and “start from scratch” with a new channel that she had complete control over. More than 2 million subscribers later — plus a successful indie comedy film, a New York Times bestseller, an iTunes-topping podcast, and a new late-night talk show on E! — Helbig continues to create content for those who watch and engage with her on YouTube.
John Green is a bestselling author behind a $300 million movie adaptation, and runs several successful businesses including the largest gathering of online video creators and fans in the US: VidCon.
None of that would have happened without YouTube, he said. The platform allowed Green and his brother Hank to build a community around those who enjoyed watching their videos — and that’s something that YouTube offers that other platforms, and especially traditional media, can’t.
“We’re not in the distraction business, we are in the community business,” said Green. “I don’t care how many people watch or read something I make, I care how many people love something I make — that love is a lot tougher to measure.”
“So if you want to stay in the eyeballs business, I think that’s cool, I don’t blame you; it’s a good business, albeit a shrinking one,” he continued. “But you risk losing your relevance with an entire generation of viewers that look to video not just for distraction but also for engagement and connection. And that’s why there is a tremendous opportunity for you in the room tonight.”
It was a strong sell. But maybe a necessary one as new players in video — specifically Facebook and Vessel — attempt to encroach on YouTube’s long-held turf.
Beyond YouTube’s native creators, BuzzFeed and Universal Pictures were two key mainstream media and brand partners that also talked the power of YouTube.
Ze Frank, president of BuzzFeed Motion Pictures, explained how a platform such as YouTube, which allows companies such as his to experiment and iterate, are important to making a strong connection with viewers. “So when we started our studio two years ago, that’s why we started on YouTube,” he said. Today, BuzzFeed has more than 5 billion lifetime views on the platform.
Universal Pictures, meanwhile, spoke about its decision to invest more in YouTube marketing, specifically TrueView ads. It helped “The Purge” gross more than $90 million on a budget of $3 million, and it helped “Pitch Perfect” become the sensation it was. (There’s a reason why Universal cast several YouTubers in the upcoming sequel, said the studio’s president of worldwide marketing Josh Goldstine.)
As for content, there was very little showcased by YouTube, with a few clips quickly highlighting top channels in its Google Preferred program across categories like comedy and entertainment, gaming, and food and beauty.
Beyond the pro-YouTube chatter, the company talked about its large growth on mobile. YouTube now reaches more 18- to 49-year-olds on mobile than any cable network, said company CEO Susan Wojcicki. In terms of watch time, mobile saw a 90% growth versus 50% for YouTube across platforms, added the company’s global head of content and business operations Robert Kyncl.
“I predict in the next five years, a majority of ad-supported video will take place either on a mobile device or mediated through them,” Kyncl said. “That means in the not-too-distant future, ad-supported equals mobile video… Don’t believe me? Just watch.”
And then Bruno Mars closed out the show.