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Hulu is now part of Disney Plus — here’s what it took to pull off


As of today, Hulu is part of Disney Plus. Hulu still exists — it still even has its own app — but it’s also being bundled into Disney’s primary streaming service alongside all the company’s other content. Even the Disney Plus logo changed to integrate that iconic green Hulu hue. 

From a product perspective, the Hulu integration is roughly what you’d imagine. Hulu is now a tile inside the app, next to Marvel and Pixar and National Geographic and the rest. The price hasn’t changed; it’s still US-only, and the app’s not going away. Hulu shows and movies will also show up in search results and recommendations; if you’re subscribed to Hulu, you’ll get everything seamlessly, and if you’re not, the app will try to convince you to sign up. Disney has been beta-testing this for months, and it works fine — it can be somewhat confusing to figure out what’s “a Hulu thing,” whereas “a Pixar thing” is much easier to define, but there’s nothing shockingly new or confusing here. It’s just Hulu inside of Disney Plus.

Most — but not all — of the Hulu library is coming to Disney Plus.
Image: Disney

But “it’s just Hulu inside of Disney Plus” turns out to be a bigger deal — and a bigger undertaking — than it sounds. As it has prepared to integrate Hulu, Disney has also been changing the way the whole company thinks about streaming. It has worked to better integrate everything from login tools to advertising platforms to metadata and personalization systems so that Disney can go from owning a collection of streaming services and platforms to having something much more like a single product across the whole company. 

So, yes, Hulu is just a tile. But that tile also seems to represent something bigger inside of Disney: the full Disney Plus-ification of everything, as the tech and strategy it built over the last few years percolates out to everything else Disney does. “We zoomed out and took a very long-term approach,” says Aaron LaBerge, the president and CTO of Disney Entertainment and ESPN. “We’re going to be running a streaming service forever.”

Here’s just one example of what that looks like: Chris Lawson, the EVP of content operations at the company, estimates that Disney had to move more than 100,000 individual assets from Hulu to Disney Plus in order to make this work. “It’s a mixture of content that we own and content from our partners,” he says. Every partner shares that content in different ways, in different formats, with different metadata attached. 

Disney had to move more than 100,000 individual assets from Hulu to Disney Plus in order to make this work

Hulu, a 16-year-old app, runs on a very different technological platform than the four-year-old Disney Plus. So Disney had to re-encode all the Hulu video files to work on Disney Plus, which it could have done in a relatively straightforward way, but instead, the company decided to use this opportunity to roll out a single content library system for everything, everywhere. That’s still in progress, LaBerge says: “that in and of itself has been a bit of a massive lift. But when it’s all said and done, we will have one master media library for the entire company that has the same consistent metadata formats, description of content, and playback encoding, that is the highest quality it can be for the entire Walt Disney Company.”

A lot of those 100,000 assets, by the way, aren’t video files. They’re artwork designed to be used in various places in the app, in email marketing blasts, on Hollywood billboards, and elsewhere. Disney Plus, a huge global service, requires content providers to include lots of this stuff alongside every title, up to twice as much as Hulu requires. So part of the process for Disney has been to adapt all that Hulu art and to bring everybody else up to Disney Plus standards going forward. “When the next Marvel movie comes out, there’s a specification for how the content needs to be delivered and what artwork is associated with it,” LaBerge says. 

The Hulu on Disney Plus logo isn’t exactly breaking new ground.
Image: Disney

The same goes for the metadata, the information about each title. Streaming metadata is a mess; every studio, producer, and platform seems to have a different language with which to talk about content. Disney has been building something like a universal metadata translator, says Jay Donnell, the company’s SVP of product engineering. “We don’t assume one source of truth,” he says. “We can ingest content from all these different catalogs and have it represented in a unified way.”

That improved metadata makes things like search better — and also improves personalization. By unifying everything in the background, Disney now plans to use all the company’s data about you to recommend stuff you might like. What you watch on Hulu will affect your Disney Plus recommendations and vice versa; so will the rides you go on at Disney World or the teams you care about on ESPN. Disney has been working to unify identities so that who you are on the Hulu app is connected to who you are on Disney Plus and ESPN and your cable box. (That also helps with cracking down on password sharing.) Much of this is only starting to roll out now, but LaBerge says it’ll get better fast as it flows through Disney’s machine learning systems. Even search can be personalized in real time, Lawson says, based on what you’re watching and thus likely to be looking for. 

Over time, the goal is to make all of Disney’s streaming services, and maybe even all of Disney, work out of this single system. That means making the tools work in many languages, across many regions, and with many partners. It’ll take a while, and ultimately, it will affect much more than just Disney Plus, too. It’ll change the way the entire company thinks about, creates, and distributes content. LaBerge says a few times that the Hulu integration launch is just the first instantiation of a lot of new systems and products that will eventually show up everywhere else — including even places like the Hulu app, where users might start to notice better recommendations and streaming quality.

When I ask LaBerge if this feels like an inflection point, the moment Disney Plus really took over Disney, he says yes. But not in the way I’m thinking. The future isn’t necessarily one behemoth app for everything, he says. “It could all be one app, and it could also exist outside of one app — the way we’re designing it, it won’t matter.” You and I, the viewers, might never notice the changes Disney’s making, except that, hopefully, everything gets a little better. But all around Disney, the tech the company built to launch its flagship streaming service is starting to reshape how everything works under the surface. In that sense, the Disney Plus takeover is even bigger than it looks.



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