Sony's Hopkins faces austere test: Compete with vertically integrated media giants and Netflix

New Sony Pictures TV chief Mike Hopkins.

Mike Hopkins finds himself jumping out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire as he transitions from his CEO role at Hulu to lead Sony Pictures Television.

On one hand, he leaves one of the most competitively challenging roles in the media/technology business, trying to sustain and grow Hulu’s relevance in a subscription video on demand business dominated by the infinitely deep pockets of Netflix and Amazon.

It’s difficult to say Hopkins knocked it out of the park. Hulu announced that it reached the 12 million subscriber mark back in May 2016, but it hasn’t released any user metrics since then. 

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RELATED: Hulu CEO Hopkins stepping down, taking over as chair of Sony Pictures Television

But the third biggest SVOD company in the U.S. seemed to be on the offensive, launching a virtual pay TV platform over the spring that has a huge advantage in what quickly became a heated space. Hulu Live bundles the on-demand library of the Hulu SVOD service, offering early vMVPD adopters a lot more for the money. 

If he left Hulu with a somewhat hopeful future, he joins a Sony Pictures TV unit that has assets but definitely needs some forward-looking alignment. 

For one, the place has roiled on the executive end for several years, starting with a devastating hack and embarrassing public disclosure of internal emails in 2014 that ultimately cost Sony Pictures Entertainment chief Michael Lynton his job. 

More turmoil followed when Steve Mosko, a longtime Sony syndication sales executive who had risen to chair Sony Pictures TV , left in a huff in June 2016 after he was passed over in the search to replace Lynton. 

Mosko was soon followed out the door by powerful creative Jerry Seinfeld, a fixture on the Sony Lot, having created one of the most profitable half-hour comedy assets in the history of American TV production. 

Then, in June of this year, Sony Pictures TV’s top two executives, Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg, left the company to try to get Apple’s long-gestating TV ambitions off the ground. 

Now reporting to Lynton’s replacement at Sony Pictures Entertainment chief, Tony Vinciquerra, Hopkins joins a Sony Picture TV unit with decently full cupboards. For one, the division just launched ABC freshman hit “The Good Doctor.” The division also produces cable TV hits like AMC’s “Better Call Saul” and SVOD standouts like Netflix’s “The Crown” and Amazon’s upcoming “Electric Dreams.”

Sony Pictures TV’s challenge was and remains—now more than ever—distribution in an industry in which rivals have become even more vertically integrated. While NBCUniversal, Fox and Disney are all tied to major broadcast networks, Time Warner Inc. is about to consummate a marriage to a wireless company, AT&T, which controls over a hundred million pay TV and wireless subscriptions. 

And then, of course, there are the major SVOD services. Hulu is owned by rivals Disney, NBCU, Fox and Time Warner Inc. And Netflix and Amazon play an entirely different game, spending billions of dollars on original shows with loss-leader strategies. 

For its part, Sony has been able to build cable channel brands in international markets. But as with cable channels in the U.S., those networks are increasingly challenged, as streaming options proliferate. 

Meanwhile, Sony has worked to establish digital platforms like Crackle. But as a digital platform, Crackle probably isn’t capable of carrying a huge asset on its back in the same way CBS Corp. has used CBS All Access for its “Star Trek” spinoff. 

Of course, Hopkins was able to inject executive stability and forward-thinking alignment to Hulu in a tough environment—something probably not lost on Vinciquerra, who like Hopkins, did a stint on the Fox lot in Century City. 

“I’ve known Mike for years and can think of no better person to lead our television businesses during a time of such extraordinary evolution and opportunity,” said Vinciquerra, in a statement. “Mike is a proven and innovative leader who has played a key role in redefining today’s television landscape, both for consumers and for how content producers reach them.”

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