“Specialized but not Niche”: A Look at Hulu’s New Content Strategy

And how the company thinks it can co-exist with Netflix and Amazon

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Photo by Jason Riker and Hulu

More than a few TV viewers might be surprised to learn that Hulu — the popular streaming video service — offers a wealth of both exclusively licensed and original content. In fact, Hulu began offering original programming more than two years ago.

The site has launched nine programs (including four this year) and plans on debuting another half dozen shows in 2014.  And they’ve added their about 30 exclusively licensed shows from across the globe—including fare from the UK, South Korea, Israel, France, Scandinavia—to satisfy and grow their four million subscribers.

TIME recently chatted with Charlotte Koh, Hulu Original’s head of content development, about the company’s expanding profile.

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TIME: How did Hulu gain an entrance into original programming?

Koh: I think very few people know we actually launched in August 2011, a six-episode order of A Day in the Life with Richard Branson. The service had been successful as a proven distribution platform and the natural step in evolution was for the company to figure out how to have exclusivity. The subscription service started in November 2010 and took off. But a subscription businesses needs to retain people, so we needed to buy and make exclusive content.

How do you balance the licensing with original programming?

Part of the strategy of buying is looking at things that deserve a home in the world of premium television, but for whatever reason haven’t found it and are made available for us. Things like the British shows Misfits, Mongrels, and Spy, are all very successful on our service. We were looking for proof-of-concept and asking ourselves if we could draw an audience to an original show that hasn’t been on before. Year two, everything gets stepped up and we are making bigger shows and bigger bets, and discovering, hey, this works and gets more people to spend time on Hulu and gets new people to Hulu. Three-quarters of our shows are things we buy — and the other quarter is things we make, all creating a personality for the brand.

What, exactly, is that brand personality?

We are a great aggregator for content that feels specialized but not niche. You want to look for stuff that has a special intelligence about it, that you feel could be a little more challenging than a typical television view. Where you have to pay attention to the plot because the writing is good. You have to have the intellectual curiosity to click on something new. And once you do, you can only watch it here and will want to talk about it. Almost all the exclusives and originals can’t fit in any easy category in terms of genre. We mix genres in a way you haven’t quite seen before.

How do you target your audience?

The median age is in the mid-30s, but the heavy-users are younger than that. They have a relatively high per-household-income and are fairly highly educated and discerning users of content. We tend to look at our service serving multiple constituencies simultaneously, like a magazine set.

Can you share an example?

East Los High was an acquisition we hope to support by making another season as an original. It’s one where we are targeting an under-served audience, women 18-25. It has moved beyond the Latina audience and into other urban young women who identify and find themes interesting and relatable. Korean dramas are another example — most of the people watching aren’t Korean. And Japanese anime is yet another. It tends to go from there. We are in a crazy growth spurt, looking for new people and hoping the current bases uses us more.

What makes a successful Hulu show?

Because we’re still in our early days, the most important thing is to look at the show and ask, How close did it come to the original creative vision both we and the creative team signed on for? There is so much execution risk, so many places where thing could go pear-shaped. We love it when it is seen as culturally relevant and part of the conversation because it is new and different. And, sure, we care about views just like everyone else.

What are your most successful shows?

Numbers, to me, don’t necessarily mean a thing is successful. The views are the views, and you can look at the rankings, but the shows that are amazing are the ones that took a big risk and you didn’t know if it was going to be a flame-out failure. All four of our shows this year have realized their potential. Behind the Mask (pictured) has been the best and fullest realization of what Josh Greenbaum pitched to us, an intersection where reality and documentary meet, showing the best in human nature. And not exploitative of us human beings at our worst. I love the passion Seth [Meyers] and Mike [Shoemaker] have for The Awesomes. It is amazing when people that talented come together and literally do it for the love of it. I also love to introduce American audiences to people who are already stars in the UK, it’s like being their date to a debutant ball. Quick Draw is the ultimate money-where-the-mouth-is show. A Harvard-educated sheriff in 1875 Kansas. That is not exactly a logline to salivate over. We took a leap of faith with them and found an incredible following.

What are the challenges moving forward?

How we get smarter at selection. And renewing shows while figuring out what will make audiences and critics excited. You always have to make and buy stuff that people say, Ooh, that was new, I didn’t know I would like that, but I do. We have to continue to surprise people in a pleasant way.

How closely do you watch Netflix and Amazon?

Very closely. There is an odd commiseration of creatives in high-tech companies. It is a culture shift. You can’t beta-test content like you can beta-test code. I love that Netflix and Amazon make great shows that make being online the cool new place for creators. It also helps shift consumer behavior. They look for exclusive content online first. That is new. We are trying to reshape the way people watch television and talk about it — we’re all pursuing different strategies. There is room for everyone. We are all trying to crack the same nut.

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