A Horn Of A Dilemma

Bob Iger updated the media community on all things Disney last week, revealing his plans for how to deal with some existential crises he is facing as his second tour of duty as King Mouse unfolds.  We learned how he is planning to deal with the writers’ strike (far less collegially than he did with the last one), the advent of AI (he endorsed the creation of an AI version of himself for earnings calls), and how he feels about Ron DeSantis and his ongoing antics (all but calling out Florida’s leader by threatening to take his thousands of jobs and millions of dollars of taxes elsewhere, and last time I looked, there’s an awful lot of vacant land and tax breaks awaiting in Georgia and South Carolina, just to name two adjacent states.

But it was the news about his intentions for Hulu that I found especially noteworthy.  Daniel Arkin of CNBC.com, which happens to belong to the company that currently owns a one-rhird stake, spelled it out:

The Walt Disney Co. plans to combine content from Hulu and Disney+ into a “one-app experience” by the end of the year, CEO Bob Iger announced on the entertainment giant’s quarterly earnings call Wednesday.  In his opening remarks, Iger called the move “a logical progression of our DTC [direct-to-consumer] offerings that will provide greater opportunities for advertisers, while giving bundle subscribers access to more robust and streamlined content, resulting in greater audience engagement and ultimately leading to a more unified streaming experience.”

From a functionality and navigational standpoint, this makes sense.  When Disney+ was strictly an SVOD service it made sense to separate the two.  Besides, the Disney brand was initially being seen as far too family-centric and pristine for the likes of THE HANDMAID’S TALE to be associated with it.  But now that Disney+ has pivoted to its own AVOD offering, and the content limitations have been loosened enough to fully embrace somewhat more adult-centric content such as Marvel’s WANDAVISION and recent movies, and by establishing the “pillars” that make up its home screen, there is certainly reason to simplify the consumer and subscriber experience.

INDIE WIRE’s Tony Maglio and Brian Welk seemed to read further between Iger’s lines, pointing out that Iger telegraphed his intentions within his remarks:

It’s clear that the content that is on Disney+ with general entertainment [emphasis Iger’s] is a very strong combination from a subscriber perspective, from a subscriber acquisition, subscriber retention and also from an advertiser perspective,” Iger continued, leaning hard on that Hulu descriptor though purposefully not using the word “Hulu” itself. “So where we are headed is for one experience that would have general entertainment and Disney+ content together.”

Maglio and Welk speculated that the move could go in one of two directions–paralleling the recent move of Paramount to cannibalize its Showtime brand into an afterthought to the right of its plus sign, or following Warner Discovery’s lead by maintaining the option for Discovery+ subscribers to stay within its own walled garden or opt for a fully MAX-imized experience with its integration into the HBOMax platform later this month.  They offered support for each of these scenarios:

Paramount Global slowly but surely brought its Showtime and Paramount+ together. By September, the two will become one as “Paramount+ with Showtime,” with the Showtime app shutting down for good. Its rebranded linear-cable channel may follow suit. These changes are expensive: It has cost Paramount $1.7 billion so far to merge Showtime with Paramount+, and the company this week laid off 25 percent of the combined Showtime, MTV Entertainment Studios, and Paramount Media Networks teams.

Perhaps a better comparison for the future Disney+ with Hulu is the Warner Bros. Discovery umbrella. There, it has taken more than a year to combine Discovery+ and HBO Max into what is soon to be called just “Max.” WBD isn’t dismantling Discovery+; it’s still making money and is a good alternative for people who don’t want all the HBO shows and movies. We expect Hulu, which has a unique “Live TV” plan and a hell of a lot more subscribers (more than 48 million) than Showtime OTT or Discovery+, would continue to be offered as a standalone.

Respectfully, I would contend that Hulu has neither the extended track record of Showtime as a supplier of accliamed original content nor a distinct enough brand to warrant the level of respect for its subscribers that could put that number in jeopardy.  While Hulu has had a smattering of success with its own content, it has never in its more than 15-year run had several significantly viewed, critically acclaimed, self-generated series at once.  The valuable Live TV VMVPD component represents subscribers seeking out content from dozens of other channels.  Many of its most popular originals come from sibling FX.  Much of its current senior management now oversees multiple areas of Iger’s conglomerate.  Perhaps its most prominent current offering, ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING, features stars who have previously starred in several movies and series for–duh–Disney!

When FX was beginning to flex its muscle as a force in premium TV we were astounded to see how little connection there was with individual series being connected to the network.  THE SHIELD was consistently associated with USA Network, which was producing far less controversial and acclaimed “blue sky” procedural TV at the time.  It wasn’t until RESCUE ME established itself as a third consecutive relative hit that the FX brand began to become something of consequence.  Today, that brand is arguably a bigger driver to Hulu than Hulu itself.  If ONLY MURDERS were to be offered up on Disney+ or FX or even another name Disney has in its portfolio (Touchstone?  20th ?) , would people stop watching?  If Live TV were to be offered up on something called ABC and Friends, would folks unsubscribe?

Hulu’s very name was drawn from ambiguity–per its founder, Jason Kilar (you remember him, don’t you, AT&T shareholders?), it comes from ancinet Chinese characters referencing horns of plenty.  Yes, I had to look that up, too, many pundits continued to perpetuate the myth the name was as contrived as Haagen-Daaz or Dasani.  I would challenge whoever may be in charge of any consumer insights at Hulu to prove that. at the moment, there is any such association with the name and brand to warrant its existence as a stand-alone entity.

Bob Iger’s got plenty to keep him up nights of late. The $9B it will cost Disney to swallow the remainder of Hulu isn’t insignificant.  But given the state of affairs at Comcast these days, where the word “interim” precedes many top executives’ titles, as well as other options that are available to the Roberts (Paramount?), it sure seems like he’s got little choice but to take full custody of Hulu.  It may be time to consider wiping the slate even cleaner by retiring a name that seems to be more of a  reminder of how it is a horn of scant little rather than plenty, and shouldn’t get in the way of the bigger tasks at hand.

Now, if we can only do something about the damn “+” sign.

Until next time…


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