Hulu Needs a New President, But Who Wants the Job?

(Image credit: Hulu)

So Hulu is losing another president, in this case Kelly Campbell, departing less than two years after taking over for Randy Freer, who left two years after taking over for Mike Hopkins. 

Campbell, like Hopkins, is heading to a competitor. In Campbell’s case, she’s taking over as president of Comcast’s streaming also-ran, Peacock

While it’s true that Peacock is both smaller and less successful than Hulu, it does come with a more secure and straightforward future as part of Brian Roberts’ bottomless portfolio of video distributors.

That’s certainly not the case with Hulu’s clear-as-mud future. 

Regardless, good for Campbell. On to the next adventure, whatever it may be. 

Who’s Next Among Hulu Execs?

Now, Hulu controlling partner, Disney, must install a new sucker, er, executive to run its oldest, most lucrative, and most widely used service while it continues to figure out just where Hulu fits in the Mouse House streaming future. 

It’s possible the service will just continue without a president. Campbell’s direct reports now belong to her former boss, Rebecca Campbell (No Relation), Disney’s chairman of international operations and DTC. Maybe the spot doesn’t get filled. 

Or maybe Disney waits until it resolves a lot of questions about what’s next for Hulu. The potential for more Hul-uncertainty right now seems boundless: 

> What terms will be signed between Comcast and Disney over a cable retransmission agreement for its ABC and ESPN groups that expires before year end? What provisions will be made for big-picture issues such as allowing ESPN to go fully direct-to-consumer, a move that would solve some of ESPN Plus’s boundless annoyances, but at a far higher subscription price?

> What happens with arbitration between Comcast and Disney in a festering dispute over Hulu’s true value? After Disney bought effective control of Hulu in its 2019 Fox mega acquisition, Comcast signed a deal to sell Disney its 30% stake in 2024, for a minimum $27.5 billion total valuation. But Comcast argues that Disney has forestalled Hulu international expansion while launching Star, something that looks a lot like Hulu, everywhere else. That’s one way to dramatically reduce Hulu’s potential valuation, but sure feels like a bait-and-switch tactic that the Scarlett Johanssons of the world will recognize. 

> Settling that valuation issue may lead to an early departure by Comcast programming on Hulu, just in time for Kelly Campbell to integrate those repatriated shows into Peacock. To boot, she’ll have a nice, multi-billion-dollar nest egg to finance more original programming on the bejeweled bird as it finally tries to take wing. 

> But if those Comcast shows depart early, how will Hulu fill the resulting programming hole? Can it ramp up production fast enough to keep consumers around? Can ABC, Freeform, and FX/FXX network shows be enough? Can the company make enough online originals to fill the hole? The Handmaid’s Tale may have been the Susan Lucci of streaming originals at this year’s Emmys (it went 0 for 21), but it’s a fine show. Will Disney cough up the cash to make lots more such programming so Hulu can remain competitive? 

Time For a Mega-Bundle and Spinoff?

Analysts such as LightShed Partners have suggested repeatedly that Disney merge its three-headed domestic streaming bundle, probably after spinning off ESPN and ABC and partnering ESPN with a top-tier sports book for a big payday. So far, executives have resisted those nostrums. 

In some ways, the ongoing uncertainty is just par for the Hulu hoop. Prognosticating what’s next for the company has been an industry guessing game for years, practically since Hulu launched under founding CEO Jason Kilar. 

Back then, Hulu was a place where big Hollywood media companies allowed fans to stream old episodes of their broadcast and cable TV shows, without going through the hassle of building their own service, or a direct relationship with fans. Hulu v. 1 was mostly about extracting a few more bucks from suddenly streaming-aware audiences while blunting investor complaints that the media companies weren’t embracing the future. 

First two, then three, then four, media companies owned a piece of Hulu, making the president’s job as much about diplomacy as operational or marketing talent, trying to balance competing priorities from a group of fractious owners with minority stakes.

But as early as 2011, three years after Hulu was founded, owners considered a possible sale or IPO. But as has happened repeatedly since, valuing the company has always been difficult. especially with no guarantees that programming deals would come along too. 

Caring For a Golden Goose

These days, for all the back-office machinations, Hulu is a bit of a golden goose, deserving careful handling. 

Last quarter,  Disney reported that Hulu had 42.8 million subscribers, with an admirable monthly revenue per sub of $13.50 for Hulu's SVOD side, which has 39.1 million paying subscribers. The skinny bundle version, Hulu Plus Live TV, brings in nearly $85 per month from each of its 3.7 million subs. For some sobering perspective, Wall Street darling Disney Plus and lost child ESPN Plus each generate about $4 per subscriber.

Despite that relatively unsung but significant success, Disney may again be looking for someone to run the place. 

Of course, there is one executive with the experience, relationships and knowledge the job needs. Best of all, he’ll be available soon. 

That Uber-candidate would be WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar, Hulu’s long-departed founding CEO. When AT&T spins out its media assets into a joint venture with Discovery by early next year, Kilar said he’ll be out of a job. 

Who knows? Maybe the saga of the returning hero coming home to the place where he first made his streaming reputation would prove irresistible to Bob Chapek, et al. What a Disney moment it would be! They could even commission a behind-the-scenes documentary to provide some original, heartwarming, and badly needed programming for Hulu. Who says there aren’t any happy endings anymore? 

David Bloom

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline (opens in new tab), Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.