Hulu's been a breakout success. It also lost $920 million last year
Posted February 9, 2018 9:35 a.m. EST
NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Hulu's got critically acclaimed content, a growing number of subscribers and determination to take on its bigger rivals.
But it's losing a ton of money in the process -- $920 million in 2017, according to an analysis published last week by the financial services firm BTIG.
That's nearly as much as the $1 billion that the service's four owners -- Comcast, Disney, 21st Century Fox and Time Warner -- invested in it last year, wrote BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield. (CNN is owned by Time Warner.)
Greenfield said his firm expects Hulu will lose nearly $1.7 billion this year.
Hulu declined to comment about the analysis.
It's not surprising that the company would lose money.
Netflix plans to spend as much as $8 billion on original content this year. But Netflix has about 118 million subscribers, along with worldwide reach. Netflix can spend that much money and turn a profit (it earned more than half a billion dollars last year).
Hulu doesn't have the luxury of a large audience -- just 17 million subscribers. That's growing, but Netflix is still seven times bigger.
"The problem with Hulu's losses are, they are not global, and the number of subscribers is not that large," Greenfield told CNNMoney this week. "It points to just how difficult it is to replicate what Netflix has built."
The competition to attract cord-cutting TV viewers is fierce. Amazon, HBO and Apple TV are also all plunking down big money on shows.
Hulu hasn't been shy about spending, either. In addition to airing originals like "The Handmaid's Tale," it also has snagged the rights to popular throwbacks like "Seinfeld, "Golden Girls" and "Full House."
And less than a year ago, it launched a new live TV streaming service with content from ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and a slew of cable channels.
Hulu has touted its investments and the results in recent weeks. The company announced in January that it generated $1 billion in ad revenue in 2017.
Daniel Ives, an analyst with GHB Insights, described the multi-billion-dollar battle between the streaming services as an "arms race." And he said the competition is what makes Hulu's relative success remarkable, despite its losses.
"What Hulu's accomplished, with much less resources, has been admirable and impressive," Ives said. "And it speaks to why it's one of the crown jewels that Disney was attracted to."
Disney's interest in Hulu will likely be a big factor in determining the service's future. The company announced late last year that it would try to buy most of 21st Century Fox, another partial owner of Hulu, for $52 billion.
It's not yet clear how Hulu could change, and Ives said Disney would likely want to keep its intentions quiet when the deal works its way through antitrust regulators.
But if the deal is successful, Disney's 30% stake in Hulu would become a 60% majority. And the company would add big-name Fox franchises like the X-Men and Avatar to a lineup that already includes the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars -- all fodder to consider for distribution on Hulu.
"The best thing that ever happened to Hulu was Disney buying Fox," Ives said. Disney already has plans to launch its own streaming service next year, but Ives suggests that Hulu could be complementary.
"It's going to be a two headed monster that they are going to compete against Netflix," Ives said. While he expected Disney to treat its standalone service as its big moneymaker, he said Hulu would still be "the little brother."
Greenfield cautioned, though, that the deal isn't done yet. Hulu's future would also depend on what Comcast, another 30% owner, has planned. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Comcast, which has tried to buy Fox in the past, is considering a new bid.
"It actually isn't clear whether the Fox acquisition makes running Hulu dramatically easier," Greenfield said. Unless Disney can fully own the service, it would still have to contend with another meaningful partner.
"Hulu's future is totally up in limbo," he added. "The reality is, Hulu does a great job of generating revenue for its parent companies ... What Hulu's longterm role in the subscription video-on-demand space is, is unclear."