Disney (NYSE:DIS) management said it expects Hulu to grow to 40 million to 60 million subscribers by 2024 at its investor day last month. But if Hulu keeps growing like it has recently, it'll reach the low end of that guidance as early as next year.
Hulu announced it now has 28 million subscribers, and 26.8 million of them are paid while the rest are on free trials. That's up from 25 million subscribers at the start of the year, about 23 million of whom were paying monthly. It's also an increase from 20 million subscribers at this time last year.
Hulu is on pace to add another 8 million to 9 million subscribers this year, and subscriber growth appears to be accelerating.
Adding fuel to subscriber growth
There are a couple factors fueling Hulu's subscriber growth.
First, Hulu dropped its subscription price for ad-supported viewers by $2 per month at the start of the year. That's in stark contrast to Netflix's price hike in January. Subscription video-on-demand viewers who are looking for some price relief from Netflix's decision may find Hulu's ad-supported service an excellent complement.
Hulu is in a position to lower its price for ad-supported streamers because it's built up a significant base of active advertisers that enables it to monetize its viewers extremely well. The company claims its ad load is still less than half of traditional television, so it can fall back on showing viewers more ads if necessary. Additionally, Hulu has the potential to upsell viewers to its premium on-demand tier or its live TV product.
The second factor driving growth for Hulu is its growing slate of original content. The company made a name for itself in original series with The Handmaid's Tale, and it's rapidly expanded the breadth of content it commissions exclusively for the streaming service. Disney plans to redouble Hulu's investments in original content in order to grow the service.
It's important to note that original series may not attract outsized viewership compared to licensed content. That's especially true on Hulu, where a large part of the appeal is access to TV episodes the day after they air. That said, originals can be a key tool to bring subscribers onto the service and keep them coming back month after month.
Hulu's subscriber growth may get another boost next year after Disney launches Disney+. Management has discussed the potential for bundling the service with Hulu or its sports-centric ESPN+ service. Disney+ has already attracted a lot of consumer attention, and Hulu could benefit as a result.
What Hulu's rapid growth means for investors
Disney expects Hulu's operating losses to peak this year at about negative $1.5 billion, and the service should show profits in either 2023 or 2024.
But if Hulu's subscriber growth continues at its current pace (even if it stops accelerating), it could become profitable much sooner than that. That could incentivize Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) to hold onto its stake in the company longer instead of selling its third of the company to Disney. Comcast is mulling selling its stake in order to pay down its debt and fund its own growth initiatives.
Disney might be able to expand Hulu to Europe earlier than planned if it continues to show strength in the U.S. That's especially true if originals are indeed driving subscriber growth and Hulu obtains the European distribution rights to its key series. That would delay profitability, but it could produce a much more profitable business in the long run.
The continued growth of Hulu is good for investors in both Disney and Comcast. Disney may be able to move more aggressively with its decisions on expanding Hulu, and Comcast may be able to keep its investors patient as it waits to cash out at a higher valuation.