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Has Disney Abandoned Hulu?

Ben Bowman

Over the last few months, some strange things have been happening in the Disney family of streaming apps. Content that would previously have landed on Hulu has been appearing on Disney+. And Hulu is looking more and more like a service set adrift.

In theory, the division should be clear: Disney+ is home to family-friendly content and the Star Wars and Marvel tentpoles, Hulu is home to anything more adult.

But in practice, Disney+ is stealing content that would be more at home on Hulu. Consider new Disney+ PG-13 titles “Free Guy” and ““West Side Story.” The Ryan Reynolds sci-fi film earned its rating for “strong fantasy violence throughout, language and crude/suggestive references.” The Steven Spielberg musical is cited for “some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material, and brief smoking.” The musical reboot also includes an attempted rape and a transgender character referred to as a “dickless wonder.” Not typical Disney fare.

The always-sensitive Parents Television and Media Council has been up in arms over these choices. “When Disney+ added TV-MA-rated Marvel series to its platform just weeks ago, we condemned its decision to bring explicit content on what was a trustworthy family-friendly streaming platform,” said PTC President Tim Winter. “Disney+ appears to be doubling down on its disregard for the families who made the platform commercially successful.”

Disney is able to sidestep this platform conflict overseas since Hulu does not exist outside of the United States. International markets can access more adult content under the Star tab within the Disney+ interface. But Disney is obliged to keep Hulu alive until at least 2024 because of its shared ownership of the platform with NBCUniversal.

It’s not just a matter of Disney sending content to Disney+ instead of Hulu. In some cases, Disney+ is sharing titles that were originally only on Hulu, like the Oscar-winning Best Documentary, “Summer of Soul.” They also decided to send the Beatles doc, “Get Back” to Disney+ instead of Hulu.

So if Disney+ is carrying films that would otherwise fit on Hulu and raiding content that could go to Hulu, what’s left for Hulu?

Hulu recently scored with the wild series “Pam & Tommy,” which features nudity and profanity. And it’s getting a second season of “Only Murders in the Building.” The upcoming Kardashian reality series should also do well.

But beyond that, the slate looks awfully light in comparison to the pipeline at HBO Max or Netflix, or even Disney+ itself.

Some major films have gone to Hulu, like Ben Affleck’s “Deep Water”, “The Kings Man”, and “Death on the Nile” – but some of those are shared with HBO Max.

Hulu miniseries like “Dopesick” have received critical acclaim, but we’re not seeing similar efforts arrive quickly enough for a standalone service. The platform’s most veteran hit - “The Handmaid's Tale” — could be nearing its end because of Amazon’s acquisition of MGM (who makes the series).

Disney CEO Bob Chapek is catching plenty of friendly fire from within his own organization. From internal restructuring fights to the botched Scarlett Johansson lawsuit to battles over the company’s handling of Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law, the company hasn’t seen many positive headlines lately.

Chapek seems to be all-in on Disney+, which could pay off for subscribers, but the worry is that there’s a lack of attention on the other areas of the business: theatrical releases, theme parks, the TV networks, and, of course, the other two streaming services.

ESPN+ doesn’t find itself in the same danger as Hulu. There’s a fairly clear line between sports and general entertainment, although Disney+ did raid ESPN+ for four “30 for 30” documentaries, so even that line can be blurred.

Presumably, Disney would just argue that subscribers should get the Disney Bundle of Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ and it wouldn’t matter where the content lives. But for Hulu-only subscribers, the standalone value of the platform is quickly eroding.