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At CES 2018, Hulu says Netflix isn’t the high roller you think

Netflix’s $8 billion to spend on shows? In Vegas for CES, Hulu says: I see your $8 billion and raise you another $20 billion.

Hulu CEO Randy Freer speaks on stage with John Martin, chairman and CEO of Turner.
Hulu CEO Randy Freer, right, speaks on stage with John Martin, chairman and CEO of Turner. 
Josh Miller/CNET

In the media circles swirling at CES 2018, the figure $8 billion gets thrown around a lot, but Hulu isn't buying into the hype.  

Rival Netflix is spending at a breakneck pace -- a new high of $8 billion this year -- to both create and license the shows and movies that will fuel your watercooler talk and suck you in as a subscriber. The sky-high figure has unnerved traditional TV programmers and set an impressive spending bar for the tech giants like Facebook and Apple that are turning to video as a hook for their gadgets and services.

Hulu, though, isn't so impressed.

"Way too much is thrown around about $8 billion," Randy Freer, Hulu's CEO, said Wednesday at a keynote discussion in a cavernous theater at the Monte Carlo hotel and casino here in Las Vegas. "Hulu has the access to $20 [billion] to $30 billion worth of content."

Hulu's budget for original shows is smaller than Netflix's, but the streaming service is an online pipeline for the programming of some of the biggest television companies in the world. Its owners include Comcast's NBCUniversal, ABC-owner Disney, 21st Century Fox, as well as minority investor Time Warner, which owns HBO and CNN. The original programming funneled into Hulu from those owners, on top of Hulu's own budget, dwarfs that of Netflix's if you consider all the programming in aggregate, he said.

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Freer's comments come at a high-profile moment for Hulu. The service is riding high in some respects. Its dystopian series "The Handmaid's Tale" was the first show from a streaming service to win a best drama Emmy, and it began streaming live TV channels last year.  But its direction is foggy in the year to come. Comcast, which has been a silent partner in Hulu for the last seven years, starts to have a say in Hulu's strategy late in 2018. Soon after that, Disney's massive deal last month to buy Fox would give it majority ownership over the streaming service.

The critical and awards success of "The Handmaid's Tale" has made an impact on people subscribing, Freer said.

After the show's Emmy win, and as attention on it built, "a fair amount of subscribers came in and the first thing they watched was 'The Handmaid's Tale,'" he said.

Freer, who was named Hulu's CEO less than three months ago and wore black sneakers in a nod to the casual attire of the tech-focused operation he now runs, didn't give much credence to categorizing companies as either tech or media.

"In the world we live in today, you have to be great at the technology it takes to deliver your product," he said. All media companies have to be tech companies too, he said.

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CES 2018: CNET's complete coverage of tech's biggest show.