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Hulu Honcho Is a One-Man Disarmament Treaty

Mike Hopkins doesn’t descend from Hollywood royalty. He didn’t do a stint at McKinsey & Co. or launch a start-up out of his college dorm room. Sun Valley is familiar turf, but it’s not home.

What Hopkins has done, relentlessly, better than most, is straight-up work. He has applied his curious mind and a rare knack for building consensus, ascending through the TV business while pulling off the feat of being both accomplished and approachable. Widely respected during his 18-year career at Fox, where he steered the distribution troops through game-changing launches and thorny negotiations, he has always learned by doing. And now he gets daily lessons as CEO of Hulu, a post he has held since October 2013.

“Almost everything” about the Hulu role has been brand-new to him, Hopkins readily admits. “A typical day for me has so much variety,” he says. “Distribution is a part of what we do, but now I go from marketing to programming to the technology.

“At Fox, every year it was something new,” he adds, recalling rollouts of video-on-demand, TV Everywhere and regional sports nets. “I do get a charge out of launching new products.”

A lot of top executives whose purview expands just fake it till they make it. (Emphasis on “fake it.”) The self-made essence of Hopkins makes him seemingly incapable of the megalomania and bluffing that predominates in the industry.

“He is disarmingly unassuming,” says Michael Biard, who worked for Hopkins for 10-plus years at Fox Networks and is now president of distribution. “He’s not pretentious, and he doesn’t put on a lot of airs. That enables him to comfortably rub elbows with all manner of folks and put them at ease.”

Hopkins doesn’t recall being an especially avid TV viewer during his childhood in San Diego. Regular doses of The Dukes of Hazzard, maybe, “no more or less than anyone else.”

Still, something happened one fateful day in the Hopkins household.

“I distinctly remember when we got cable,” he says. “My parents added a family room over our garage. And we had HBO. I remember thinking, ‘We have all these movies!’”

It would take a while before that fascination with video delivery would become Hopkins’ daily work, but the dots connected along the way were not insignificant. After graduating from Cal State Long Beach (he would later earn an MBA at UCLA), Hopkins went to work in sales for Harte Hanks, then a media company known for hawking shoppers and PennySavers.

Restless after five years of old-school sales, Hopkins jumped at the chance to join the Weather Channel just as cable was starting to blossom. “From the second I started, I loved it,” he recalls. “Original content basically didn’t exist outside of news and sports. Cable was nascent and growing and really exciting.” His early niche: affiliate sales and marketing.

Hard-Won Wisdom

When Hopkins moved to Fox a few years later, original content was in a full-on boom. One of his first projects was securing distribution for a new network known as FX. His run in Century City would also be marked by bruising showdowns with multichannel video programming distributors and, later, the Fox station affiliates that were added to his purview in a restructuring.

“There were several times we had multiple high-profile deals going at the same time,” Biard says. “That’s when you really see the measure of the man. He has the ability to really see things from the other side and is never afraid to ask what may seem like an obvious question. He’s also never afraid to look at things from a different angle.”

This isn’t subordination or yielding of the high ground, Biard adds. “He has a tremendous amount of self-confidence. And that comes from an ability to distill things down.”

Along the way, Hopkins would serve on the boards of the Big Ten Network, Nat Geo and, fatefully, Hulu. His board post there made him a known commodity for the stakeholders and a strong leadership bet in the wake of a turbulent period when the service was shopped and then pulled back off the market.

Hulu has grown in its seven-plus years into a well-funded challenger to Netflix and Amazon, with 9 million subscribers. It has a war chest, writing nine-figure checks for streaming rights to Seinfeld and South Park and commissioning big-ticket originals including the J.J. Abrams-Stephen King event series 11/22/63. In all, 130 individual shows are now available on Hulu. Under Hopkins, Hulu has been active, ditching the “Plus” from its subscription offering and reportedly exploring an ad-free tier at a higher monthly fee.

If the company is running a marathon, though, “I don’t think we’ve hit the first water station,” Hopkins says. “We’re in the second or third mile,” with a huge advantage for the coming era when “the vast majority of content will be distributed via IP.”

Hopkins’ mission now is not unlike those in the distribution trenches—he is still preaching the gospel of working together. “I want to create an environment where people can row in the same direction,” he says. “I know that how you build consensus is, you can’t just dictate it.”