With ‘The Thick of It,’ ‘Misfits,’ and ‘Prisoners of War,’ Hulu Finds Its Competitive Advantage

In January at the Television Critics Association press tour, Hulu, the service set up by the broadcast networks to provide streaming content supported by advertising and subscriptions, announced its first original slate of scripted and reality content. Yesterday, they were back with announcements that Hulu will air the new seasons of the popular British shows Misfits, about a group of unlikely superpowered teenagers on probation, and Armando Iannucci’s scabrous political comedy The Thick of It on the same day and date that they air in the UK, and a panel promoting its airing of the Israeli drama, Prisoners of War, that is the basis for Showtime’s critical and commercial hit Homeland. The news that American audiences won’t have to wait to see these shows through a legitimate channel—and that Hulu won’t be bleeping the profuse and wildly creative profanity that is a hallmark of The Thick of It—is the useful, practical news out of Hulu’s session. But these shows herald something even more important: Hulu’s found some of the tools that are starting to define its competitive advantage as something other than a subsidiary of the networks that created it.

The time lags between when shows air in their home countries and when they arrive everywhere else has is one of the major frustrations of engaged television viewers who hear about programming they’re desperate to at least sample, but have no legitimate way of acquiring for months, years, or even at all. Even when Netflix makes it possible for viewers to catch up on past seasons of a show, viewers may come up against even greater gaps between the episodes they can finish and the time when new ones are available. Hulu, which doesn’t have to worry about slotting something into a narrow number of programming slots, is ideally suited to do what networks can’t and Netflix has yet to pursue: get viewers caught up on programming they love and transition them smoothly into the experience of watching along with an international audience they may already be in conversation with.

Similarly, in signing up Prisoners of War, Hulu’s committed to an arena of programming that broadcast networks have essentially removed from consideration: subtitled programming. And it’s done so with the source material for one of the most buzzed-about shows on television. It’s a move to claim a new space, and in particular, one important to dedicated, smart viewers who, because they have to read the subtitles, will be keeping their eyes closely focused on the screen, something that has to make Hulu’s advertisers very happy. In a conversation after the panel, Hulu’s senior vice president for content, Andy Forssell said that the company has been trying to close deals on more international shows, including some deals to bring Danish programming to the U.S. that didn’t quite work out. But if those shows fail to find other homes on proper U.S. networks even as the Scandanavian noir trend continues with the news that FX is planning a remake of Danish/Swedish co-production The Bridge, Prisoners of War could give Hulu the track record to be best positioned to close those deals in the future.

Hulu isn’t giving up on original content, Forssell emphasized. He plans to make more episodes of Battleground, Hulu’s political show, which Forssell told me and The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff was one of the 25 most-viewed shows on Hulu when it was rolling out new episodes. He said he has ambitions to do smarter programs aimed at teenage girls and is looking to target under-served audiences, including African-American viewers. And Hulu will try to keep its productions lean, operating much like Israeli productions or the 10-90 deals networks like TBS and FX have set with Tyler Perry and Charlie Sheen, where actors shoot large blocks of scenes together and out of narrative order to minimize time and money on locations and to make sure they work more consecutive days.

It may take time for the network to find a mix of content and creators that make Hulu truly competitive. Forssell declined to release specific ratings figures, arguing that they were a distraction from the strategy Hulu wants to pursue of giving shows multiple seasons to mature and time to find their audiences beyond a specific ratings period. But he said that Hulu’s best-performing proprietary shows were attracting audiences roughly the size of basic cable broadcasts for each episode, and maintaining roughly two thirds of that audience for the full length of each stream. But its content acquisitions and partnerships should give Hulu time to flesh out its original content strategy, test strategies and business models to increase legitimate audiences for piracy-vulnerable shows, compete with BBC America and PBS for sophisticated audiences with a taste for international programming.