Hulu Poised to Pass ABC in Ad Sales, Marking New Era for Disney

Advertising at Walt Disney Co.’s online channels looks set to overtake the company’s ABC broadcast network as marketers shift spending to more targeted audiences.

Ad sales at Disney’s direct-to-consumer businesses rose 47% to $882 million last quarter, according to a filing, closing in on the $984 million at ABC, which registered a 5% gain. At that pace, online outlets such as Hulu, ESPN+ and ABC.com will soon pass the network.

“Advertisers want to follow audiences,” Rita Ferro, president of advertising sales at Disney, said in an interview. Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek highlighted the streaming service’s success in an online investor conference Monday.

“The secret weapon with Hulu is obviously the rapid growing, robust advertising business,” he said.

Viewership of streaming TV has exploded in recent years. At the same time, Disney has been consolidating its ad-sales teams to create one-stop shopping for marketers across its various networks and platforms. That’s given a lift to traditional and online outlets.

In the past, advertisers had to deal with separate teams at ABC, ESPN and Hulu, according to Aaron LaBerge, Disney media’s chief technology officer. Now, using technology pioneered at Hulu, sponsors can buy the ads themselves, using data Disney provides about who is watching and when.

Small businesses the company hasn’t traditionally worked with are also using Disney’s online platforms, Ferro said. Over 1,000 new clients have come onboard with the changes and the company expects an 80% boost in automated ad revenue this year. In five years, as much as half of Disney’s online and traditional advertising inventory could be purchased in a similar fashion, Ferro predicts.

Hulu, which launched in 2008 as an ad-supported, free service, now has more than 39 million subscribers. Customers pay $6 a month for a version with commercials or $12 a month for one without. The service should generate as much as $3 billion in ad sales this year, a 31% increase from 2020, the research firm EMarketer estimates. Disney’s broadcast division had $3.26 billion in fiscal 2020 ad sales.

The streaming service worked last year with bra manufacturer ThirdLove for ads to run on the hit drama “Little Fires Everywhere.” To track their effectiveness, ThirdLove offered a 15% discount to people who bought products using a related code. Since then, the company has also bought ads on ABC and Disney’s Freeform cable channel.

“Disney, inclusive of Hulu, has proven to be a strong, strategic partner that understands our business, our consumers and how to engage them with compelling content,” Rebecca Traverzo, ThirdLove’s vice president of marketing, said in a statement.

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