Streaming service Hulu has hired a high-level Fox television executive, Randy Freer, as its chief executive to replace Mike Hopkins, who is moving to Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Hopkins' departure, which was announced Tuesday morning, is something of a surprise because Hulu has been gaining traction. The service now boasts about 47 million viewers, and it beat deep-pocketed rivals Netflix and Amazon.com last month to become the first streaming service to win a prestigious Emmy Award for a drama series with "The Handmaid's Tale."
In addition, Hopkins and his team introduced a $39.99-a-month bundle of live television channels to capture consumers who are cutting the traditional pay-TV cord. The new Hulu live TV offering, which launched in May, continues to gain subscribers. The offering was designed to take Hulu to a new level to better compete with Amazon.com, Sling TV and DirecTV Now.
But running Hulu can be a difficult juggling act because the chief executive must balance the agendas of its owners — Fox, Walt Disney Co. and Comcast Corp.'s NBCUniversal — and each company has its own digital strategy.
And Hopkins had a strong suitor. Hulu's board had begun negotiations for a new contract with Hopkins, whose deal expires this month. But a little more than a month ago, he got a call from Tony Vinciquerra, the new chairman and chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
Hopkins, who worked for Vinciquerra for a decade when both were executives at Fox, elected to move over to Sony rather than extend his deal at Hulu. Hopkins will become the new chairman of Sony Pictures Television, overseeing television production, syndication sales, marketing and the company's international division, which includes more than 100 overseas television channels.
"Tony has long been a colleague and mentor of mine, and I'm really excited to join him and the rest of the talented team at SPE," Hopkins said in a statement distributed by Sony. "There is a tremendous opportunity to build on SPT's momentum globally, and I look forward to working with the team to realize that potential."
Hulu could be headed into a period of transition. Time Warner Inc. also has a small stake, and it is about to be acquired by telephone giant AT&T, which has its own digital offering. In addition, NBCUniversal is expected to take a more active role in the management of Hulu.
Freer "has a unique knowledge of Hulu and expertise building consensus among its owners, and an excellent track record leading a complex organization at the nexus of the television business," Hulu board members said in a statement.
Freer has worked for two decades at Rupert Murdoch's media company, serving as chief operating officer of Fox Networks Group in Los Angeles for the last four years. That portfolio includes the Fox broadcast network, FX, National Geographic and Fox's regional sports channels. Before that, Freer was co-president of Fox Sports for two years.
Freer has served on Hulu's board for the last four years. His deep knowledge of sports contracts could be an advantage for Hulu as it bulks up with live sports with its new TV service. Sports continues to be crucial for drawing audiences to live TV as consumers increasingly binge-watch other content on-demand.
"Hulu is at the center of transformation in entertainment," Freer said. "Hulu's management team and employees have positioned Hulu to be a leader in defining the future of content creation, distribution and monetization — all while putting the viewer first."
His exit from Fox presents an immediate challenge for Peter Rice, who was given the new title of president of 21st Century Fox just six weeks ago.
With Hopkins, Sony is getting an executive with a background in both the digital media industry and the legacy television business that the online players are disrupting. He is expected to spend much of his time overseeing Sony's international portfolio of channels. His insights could help the studio pivot more quickly into the digital age at a time when many studios are grappling with declines in box office attendance and traditional TV viewing. Sony's own digital video operation Crackle also has struggled to find an audience.
Hopkins presided over a period of growth in his four years at Hulu. In addition to the live television service, the company's original programming slate has expanded, with shows including the offbeat drama "Casual" and the one-time Fox show "The Mindy Project."
Hiring the head of a streaming network as one of Sony's top executives is the latest sign of how legacy media companies are adapting to fast-changing consumer habits.
Sony has endured multiple major management changes in recent years, especially after the 2014 cyberattack that crippled the studio. Vinciquerra replaced Michael Lynton as head of the studio in June after a months-long search. Tom Rothman has run Sony's movie studio since 2015, when he replaced Amy Pascal. Sony's TV operations have been run by a consortium of executives since longtime television chief Steve Mosko left the studio last year.
In June, Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, who served as presidents of television programming and production, respectively, left Sony for Apple. Vinciquerra replaced the pair with a trio of longtime Sony TV executives — Jeff Frost, Chris Parnell and Jason Clodfelter — overseeing television production and programming.
"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," Vinciquerra said in a statement.
Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.
10:14 a.m. This article was updated to reflect the news being made official and to add comments from executives.