More and more in recent months, a certain cycle has continued to repeat itself: A beloved series leaves Netflix, usually because the studio that owns the series thinks it can find a better licensing deal elsewhere as the deals that Netflix closed in the early 2010s slowly expire.
Said beloved series eventually lands on Hulu, and the TV-centric portions of the internet rejoice, while also bemoaning Netflix’s apparent shift away from its original status as a gigantic back catalog of shows and movies to stream.
The latest iteration of the cycle concerns 30 Rock, the much-loved Tina Fey comedy that aired on NBC from 2006 to 2013. Fans sounded the alarm when news broke that the show would leave Netflix at the end of September — but before the month was out, Hulu stepped in to scoop it up (along with a handful of other shows owned by NBCUniversal, which is an investor in Vox Media).
On some level, this cycle simply reflects the ongoing theme of what could be called “phase two” of the streaming revolution; as studios and networks realize just how much more valuable their catalog titles are to streaming services, they can charge more for them, which means Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have to be more selective about what to invest in. (I’ve written much more on this topic here.)
But the 30 Rock shift — or the earlier shift of numerous 20th Century Fox titles from Netflix to Hulu — only serves to underline how both services increasingly view their role in a TV industry that’s moving more and more toward streaming first. It also helps explain why the brand new Star Trek: Discovery is exclusive to CBS All Access, and why I strongly suspect that all of these developments will lead to the eventual return of the cable bundle that many people have cut the cord to get away from.
Netflix seems more and more focused on original programming; Hulu wants to be a giant repository of stuff
In 2015, I wrote about how I thought Hulu had become the best streaming service out there, even though it couldn’t compete with Netflix in the original programming game. I based much of my opinion on the way Hulu was scooping up interesting shows from other networks, meaning it was always possible to find something new to watch that was actually worth watching. And while I had enjoyed many of Netflix’s original series, the company’s hit-to-miss ratio had always been spotty enough to give me pause.
These trends have only continued in the two years since, with a couple of different wrinkles. For one thing, Netflix’s hit-to-miss ratio remains spotty, but no more so than that of any other network, and I think you could make a real argument that a show like Fuller House isn’t meant for me anyway. (I’ll take it if its success means I get more weirdo experiments like American Vandal.) Additionally, Netflix has started actually canceling some of its more expensive shows, only increasing the sense that it’s become just another TV network.
At the same time, Hulu’s originals have finally started to click. The Handmaid’s Tale debuted to great reviews and recently won the first Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series awarded to a streaming service. Hulu is still light-years behind Netflix when it comes to producing original series, but with shows like Handmaid’s and the upcoming Marvel’s Runaways, it’s at least making a good-faith effort to catch up.
But Hulu will always lag behind Netflix in many ways. A recent Variety article on ballooning TV budgets revealed that Netflix will spend $7 billion on programming in 2018, while Hulu has spent $2.5 billion in 2017 (though it’s worth noting that Hulu, unlike Netflix, operates only within the US). Sure, neither of these services is hurting for cash, but Netflix can outspend Hulu any time it wants to.
So why is Netflix letting so many shows slip away to a chief competitor? The answer lies in how both services increasingly seem to view themselves, as driven by the proprietary data they use to make decisions.
Netflix is clearly fueled more and more by a belief that its subscribers want the kind of content they can only find on Netflix, and the service increasingly pays handsomely for the privilege, shelling out millions to land series and specials you can only watch there. Many early Netflix series eventually became available on DVD. This is less and less true with every passing year. It’s not that Netflix won’t pick up older shows; it’s seen plenty of success with everything from Friends to The Blacklist, and in 2016 it closed a blockbuster deal to keep the shows of The CW streaming on its service (and off of Hulu). But in any case where Netflix has to choose between an original series and an older title — one that might not even be on the air anymore — it will usually pick the original. (It’s also moving into the movie sphere more and more — though with somewhat mixed results so far.)
Hulu, meanwhile, appears to view its mission as being TV Central. And that’s perhaps to be expected, given that it’s co-owned by NBC, ABC, and Fox, with a minority share owned by Warner Bros. It still gets next-day reruns of many popular TV shows, and if you were to subscribe to just Hulu and CBS All Access, you would have next-day access to most of the shows on the big four broadcast networks. Hulu will program originals, sure, but it’s also interested in trying to collect as many of your favorites as possible in one place. It even lets you subscribe to live TV, from all sorts of networks (including premium channels like HBO and Showtime) through its service. (Hulu, unlike Netflix, also seems to have almost no interest in becoming a movie studio, at least not yet.)
Neither service is wholly built atop originals or catalog titles. Each, by necessity, must cultivate a mixture of both. But these separate emphases even extend to the services’ marketing, with Netflix’s ads almost always playing up all of its original series and Hulu’s ads playing up its status as a service that knows TV really well and offers you a place to watch The Handmaid’s Tale and Parenthood and Casual and How I Met Your Mother.
Thus, it makes sense to think of Netflix as attempting to become HBO on steroids — a one-stop shop for all your entertainment needs, with a little bit of everything. Hulu, meanwhile, hews closer to an FX or AMC: It has some critically acclaimed original programming, but it knows it can make just as much money (if not more) off reruns of older shows. And whom did Hulu just hire as its new chief content officer? Joel Stillerman, formerly of AMC.
What happens when phase two becomes phase three? Nothing good, probably.
I’d define “phase one” of the streaming revolution as beginning with the launch of Hulu in 2007 and concluding with the debut of House of Cards on Netflix in 2013. Phase two has been ongoing ever since, and it’s impossible to say when it will end because we’re still living in it.
But The Handmaid’s Tale dominating the Emmys might end up being a good demarcation point, especially coupled with the debut of Star Trek: Discovery as a CBS All Access exclusive, which seemed to prompt lots and lots of viewers to say, “I need to pay for another service?!”
The more companies that enter the TV space, seeing all of the money that could be made if they emerge as one of the ultimate victors of the streaming wars, the more chaotic things become. Just look at Amazon, which started out with a bunch of quirky oddball series that almost certainly drew very low ratings and is now a streaming service in seeming chaos, with a few modest hits and a new stated goal of finding “the next Game of Thrones,” as if that idea hasn’t occurred to anybody else in TV.
Throw in players like HBO, Showtime, and Starz, along with up-and-coming services from FX and AMC, plus niche services like Shudder or Sundance Now or [insert niche streaming service of your choice], and the whole enterprise feels more and more like an ever-expanding bubble that will surely pop at some point.
And yet everybody in the television industry seems aware that streaming is the future, so there’s really no reason to hold back. When even staid, stodgy CBS has jumped into the pool, there’s little motivation to sit out.
Currently, though, only Netflix and Hulu seem to really know what they’re doing — and it’s interesting that the two have bet on fairly different versions of the future of streaming. Will new streaming services of the future primarily be places to watch lots and lots of new shows, with all kinds of original content you can’t see anywhere else? Or will they become massive repositories of film and TV, ever-expanding libraries of stuff?
The two approaches can exist side by side, and I feel more confident than ever that when everything shakes out, Netflix and Hulu will both remain standing. But the road to that point looks a little more chaotic every day.