Data Is Biggest Star at Hulu NewFront

Let’s get it out of the way—at the 2019 Hulu NewFront, I saw

  • George Clooney
  • Reese Witherspoon
  • Zoe Kravitz
  • Kyle Chandler
  • Elle Fanning
  • Nicholas Hoult
  • Margot Robbie
  • The RZA
  • David Chang
  • Oh, and someone named Chrissy Teigen.

I have blurry pictures of many of them because I was sitting 100 feet or so from the stage. Oh, the stories I’ll tell my child: Why yes, I was once in the general vicinity of Coach Taylor!

But far more interesting than the parade of stars was the data spectacle. Hulu gained 8 million subscribers in 2018 for a total of 28 million (only 1.3 million on promotions). According to comScore’s alchemy, Hulu’s ad-supported reach is 58 million. Total hours watched on the platform increased by 75% in 2018, with an 82% uptick in ad-supported hours. Time on the platform per subscriber was up another 20%.

No wonder the Hulu theater below Madison Square Garden was packed with would-be buyers. Perhaps the real star of the NewFront was Chief Data Officer Jaya Kolhatkar, who offered a glimpse into not only the high value of Hulu’s first-party data and complexity of its audience segmenting, but also into how data-crunching efforts have been turned into products.

For example, Hulu has done its research on binge watchers, finding that 40% of its viewers will devour more than one series each indulge in three episodes at a time on average and that 50% of binging is ad-supported. Thus, the company has created a unit targeted to these users, enabling advertisers to deliver offers or commercial-free episodes. This will launch widespread in the fourth quarter.

Another novel ad product is the “Easter Egg” ad aimed at content miners on the hunt for hot new viewing material. Basically, Hulu will add tiles in its interface for fake shows that turn out to be brand offers when clicked on. Content miners appear to be a growing opportunity, with Hulu reporting just as much interest in “classic” shows as newer ones. Last year, Hulu users took in 100 million hours of ABC’s “TGIF” content from the 90s (e.g., “Full House,” “Family Matters,”)—I can understand the desire for a more synthetic and saccharine view of America right now.

In addition, the “Pause Ad”—a nifty invention seemingly inspired by YouTube in which a display ad pops up when a user hits pause—has proved a success, possibly thanks to savvy launch partner Charmin (“Check that you’re stocked up on teepee in the bathroom!”). It’s being rolled out to the advertising masses—Hulu claims 1.1 billion ad-supported pauses are waiting to be filled.

Here Are Some Other Fast Takeaways:

  • Youth is a big sell for the company: the median age of Hulu viewer is 31… Which is about a generation younger than other networks. Reportedly 21 million watchers (or 75% of Hulu subscribers) are cord-cutters or cord-nevers.
  • 80% of Hulu viewing is done in the living room, and the average user flips between three devices.
  • As Disney now appears to be the majority stakeholder, Hulu was eager to promote that the Disney+ streaming service would be integrated. Of course unmentioned was Comcast and NBC/Universal’s future with the platform.
  • Hulu claimed that 9 times as many advertisers are leveraging its advanced TV platform compared to the year before. While that’s not an actual number of advertisers, it’s clear the amount is pretty high.
  • Ad pods are now limited to 90 seconds, and ads are frequency-capped at one per user an hour, and only two exposures per user a day.
  • The company boasted granular measurement you can’t get on linear TV, but added that attribution studies showed a 20% brand lift for OTT advertisers. What that actually means… ???
  • Content suggestions are powered both by a data-driven algorithm as well as flesh-and-blood humans—apparently referred to as Hulu-gans.

Oh Yeah, There May Have Been Previews of Original Content Too

Finally, because I know you trust me as a television critic as much as an ad-, I gotta say that Hulu’s original content game is strong—Clooney was there to promote his vision of “Catch-22,” which I’m terrified to watch as it’s one of my favorite novels. Witherspoon is producing and starring in a series with Kerry Washington based on the recent bestselling novel, “Little Fires Everywhere” (I bought a copy for my mom!).

RZA spoke about the bio series “Wu-Tang Clan: An American Story,” which seems like an ambitious project for an eager audience. And although the crowd didn’t seem as into it as other fare, I was very into Fanning and Hoult in “The Great,” which can be easily described as Catherine the Great gets “The Favourite” treatment (and I don’t mean beef strapped to the legs).

A new animated show called “Solar Opposites” from the creator of “Rick and Morty” features two alien leads that sound and act like Rick and Morty because they seem to be voiced by the same actor that portrays both Rick and Morty, who is also the creator of both “Rick and Morty” and this new show, “Solar Opposites.” They probably should have just called “Ricker and Mortier.”

There are new Marvel shows and comedies based on 90s films (“High Fidelity” AND “Four Weddings and a Funeral”), as well as another season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” where (and this is not my language) “Offred goes on offense.” Oh, and a cooking show with this Teigen person highlights Hulu’s big new cooking vertical.

In the end, I don’t know if Hulu even needed to bring in the star power. The data, products, and content previews all spoke volumes—Hulu is not only a must-buy for advertisers looking to tap the ever-growing connected-TV space, but also an innovative force in terms of analytics, segmenting, and ad-product development.

As industry players are pondering the usefulness of the upfront in the digital age and digital publishers are bowing out of the NewFronts, Hulu pretty much gave a master class in how to do it right. The presentation was quite an inside look at the potential—or perhaps the fast-approaching future—of connected TV.