How Big is Hulu’s Biggest Hit?

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One of the craziest parts of the streaming wars is actually how forward-thinking the traditional media companies were. Way back in 2007, they teamed up and created a joint venture that became Hulu, a streamer featuring TV episodes the day after they aired on broadcast. (But only, inexplicably, five episodes at a time, possibly the worst strategic decision of the 21st century.)

Yet, with that head start, Hulu has languished behind Netflix and maybe Prime Video, depending on how you count. And now even the upstarts like Disney+ and HBO Max may be passing it in interest. Let’s dig into Hulu this week.

(Reminder: The streaming ratings report compiles data from Nielsen’s weekly top ten viewership ranks, Netflix datecdotes, Top Ten lists, Google Trends and IMDb to determine the most popular content. While most data points are current, Nielsen’s data covers the weeks of May 17th to May 23rd.)


Partly, the difficulty in examining Hulu is that Hulu doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Their biggest success, to date, is seemingly the “prestige” films they’ve acquired over the years. From Parasite last year to Palm Springs last summer to Nomadland this spring, Hulu has often touted its record-breaking new film releases. As I’ve noted before, this is a far cry from Netflix, since few Hulu titles had actual viewership figures attached:

But Hulu isn’t really a film service…they’re a TV platform, starting with licensed, day-after-air TV. And like all streamers, they’ve pivoted into originals. How well have they launched original TV series? Well, not well. 

Their biggest hit to date is The Handmaid’s Tale. For the last four weeks, it’s been a staple on the top ten list. But that is a pinch misleading, given that it’s a buzzy series heading into its fourth season. How does it stack up to other series, in this context? 

Well, for the first look, here’s its performance compared to other weekly-released series. It’s trending a bit down compared to both WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. We’ll see if it can reverse the downward trend, though that’s admittedly rare.

You’ll also see that, frankly, The Handmaid’s Tale should do better than WandaVision or TFATWS, since it is going into its fourth season. There are a lot more episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale to watch than any of these freshmen or sophomore comparisons. Comparing it to similar season 4 releases, well…

So it’s a hit somewhere between The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and 13 Reasons Why. Given that it could still add viewership, it may catch up to the latter. But clearly, The Crown is an order of magnitude more watched. (The Crown is still a staple on the Nielsen Top Ten list. Basically, it acts like a “licensed” title, which is great for The Platform.) So if we’re just comparing streamers, Netflix has multiple titles that are much more popular than Hulu’s most popular title. 

But we shouldn’t just judge Hulu based on their hits, but their misses. The biggest indictment of Hulu’s strategy is that The Handmaid’s Tale is virtually the only TV series of theirs we’re talking about.

I’ve taken to calling this phenomenon “dogs not barking”—after Sherlock Holmes—and it means the series never made a Nielsen Top Ten list. Last week, I asked if Jupiter’s Legacy was a “flop” or a “bomb”. Assuming the latter is worse, I’d say films and series which don’t even make a top ten are “bombs”. Hulu, in that regard, has a lot of bombs. 

The latest of which is Shrill. With a strong creative team and good reviews, it’s the type of show one would assume does well, until we look at the data and don’t see it driving any viewership above Netflix series. Frankly, for most of 2020, no Hulu Original made a Nielsen top ten chart. Not Pen15. Not Woke. Not A Teacher. And likely countless other series I/we collectively missed. The conclusion? Before the “streaming ratings era”, a lot of critically acclaimed hits were presumed to be at least somewhat popular. The ratings show they probably weren’t.

(Before August of 2020, there’s a chance that Little Fires Everywhere, Devs, Ramy or Love, Victor could have made the Nielsen ratings, but Hulu wasn’t tracked in my data set at the time.)

So if I’m going simply by the ratings, the platform that needs the most work is Hulu. Its day-after-linear-TV catalogue is a huge competitive advantage. But when it comes to Originals? It’s well behind the pack.

Quick Notes on TV

– Speaking of dogs not barking, on May 14th, the second season of Love, Death & Robots premiered. To show I’m fair, if there’s any series I’m 100% behind, it’s animated sci-fi. Featuring robots. Personally, I wanted this show to do well. And yet, it joins Shrill in the “dogs not barking” category, meaning it failed to place on the Nielsen Top Ten list and only got a Weekly Top Ten score of 35. The one defense is that the episodes are very, very short, averaging 13 minutes per episode, the lowest among series I track.

Who Killed Sara?—which debuted to a Netflix-reported 55 million households globally after Part I—is back for season 2 and another 8 episodes. Interestingly, this is about the closest two seasons of a Netflix series have premiered—I’m curious if anyone knows of a closer one—and clearly it and Lupin—which also released its Part II in June—are a part of a trend. My theory is that Netflix knew it was trending towards a content shortage in the first half of 2021, so they split seasons apart to drive tune in.

– We also had a new season of Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous. Kids series often have multiple smaller seasons to drive interest, so this isn’t a big change. At 6.3 million total hours, it had a fine opening.


The big release for Netflix in May was Army of the Dead, Zack Snyder’s latest. The key questions for a title this big are: 

Was it a hit?
Was it bigger than Extraction?

On count one, probably. On count two, probably not.

Let’s start easy: this wasn’t bigger than Extraction in either U.S. viewership or global viewership. Here’s a list of top Netflix films ranked by Week 1 total viewership and Netflix “datecdotes”. 

So is it a hit? Probably. Let’s phrase it in positive terms: This is the 11th best opening of a “first run” film on streaming between Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and Prime Video. That’s good. Combined with Thunder Force’s similar opening, that’s two very solid launches in a row. My new threshold for a “hit”, via Nielsen total hours viewed, is about 15 million hours in the first week. That’s not a “100 million” domestic opening, in box office terms—those would be films getting over 25 million hours—but it’s very good. 

So why say probably? This is where expectations come in. Should a Zack Snyder-helmed, expensive zombie flick do better than this? I’d say so! Think of box office as a comparison. Does a studio celebrate having the 11th best opening weekend of the year? Probably not, unless the film was a cheap comedy or horror film and outperformed. This doesn’t feel cheap. Wikipedia says it had a $70-90 million production budget, and I’d take the over on that.

Last thought: I’m fairly convinced that the “datecdotes” are trending downwards as well, implying that, globally, Netflix is seeing a post-Covid slump in total usage. (Other statistics back this up.) Potentially, if Army of the Dead comes out in 2020, it gets 90 million households to check it out. In other words, the decline in streaming is real, as my “visual of the week” indicated.

Quick Notes on Film

Sabotage is the latest library title to burst to the top of Netflix’s charts for two weeks, then descend back to obscurity. This emerging phenomenon is why I recommend thinking about the lifetime viewership of these titles, not the one or two week peaks.

Coming Soon!

– On May 28th, Netflix released the newest season of Lucifer. In May, I’d noticed an uptick in viewership for Lucifer before the new episodes, so it will be interesting to see in the Nielsen data next week how this translates to actual viewership.

– Well, here’s a fun headline:

Yeah, what gives? How can a show premiere on NBC, get cancelled, then move to Netflix and suddenly become a “hit”? Well, it’s complicated, but usually it means folks are comparing apples (linear ratings) to hammers (Netflix top ten lists). In a few weeks, I’m excited to dig into “The Manifest Conundrum” to explain what it means for distribution, popularity and business models. (And given that Netflix opted not to buy a season 4, clearly Netflix wasn’t that impressed either.)

Rick & Morty’s latest season premiered on linear TV this past weekend, with catch up in a variety of streaming locations. (Mostly Hulu, with library titles on HBO Max.) I’ve speculated that R&M is one of the most popular shows on cable, so it will be interesting to see if this show impacts ratings at all.

Anecdata of the Week

Folks, I’m introducing a new feature this week. In addition to my steady stream of regular ratings (Nielsen, Google Trends, IMDb, and Top Ten lists), I absorb many of the “anecdata” floating out there. These are the other measurement firms which measure streaming consumption and leak selective statistics to the trades. Each week, I’ll highlight one. 

This week, our entry comes from Parrot Analytics:

I like Parrot Analytics but don’t use their regular top ten lists because they’re a little tilted—well, honestly, very tilted—towards “genre” series. That’s because they use a lot of social data, which is heavily tilted towards younger, more online and fan cultures. (Honestly, do you think the “most in demand” series in America is an anime series? Really?)

In this case, though, since they’re comparing Marvel-to-Marvel, I think this is a good forecast that Loki has the potential to be the biggest MCU series this year.


A peak behind the curtain: I initially wrote a big explainer on Nielsen’s The Gauge, a new streaming tool I’m excited to track. But it went long, so it will be my deep dive on Monday morning. Check it out then.

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The Entertainment Strategy Guy

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

Former strategy and business development guy at a major streaming company. But I like writing more than sending email, so I launched this website to share what I know.


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