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Why Hulu is hoping to turn old ‘Golden Girls’ episodes into a gold mine

Still from "The Golden Girls": Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo, Bea Arthur as Dorothy Petrillo Zbornak, Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux, Betty White as Rose Nylund
Ron Tom | NBCU Photo Bank | Getty Images

Come Feb. 13, Hulu is hoping some viewers thank them for being a friend.

On that date, the streaming service has exclusive streaming rights to all 180 episodes of "The Golden Girls" — the hit 1980s sitcom about four older women living the single life in Miami — available in its digital library.

More than two decades after its last episode aired, "The Golden Girls" remains a cultural touchstone, and helped turn now-95-year-old Betty White into one of America's enduring sweethearts.

Although "The Golden Girls" was ranked by the Writers Guild of America at number 69 of its 101 best written series of all time, the show is less of a cultural phenomenon than a ratings juggernaut like "Seinfeld" — raising the question of whether the show can pay dividends in the competitive landscape of streaming media.

"The Golden Girls" "has really stood the test of time and is still resonating with audiences. So, when the opportunity came up to license it, we knew we had to take it," a Hulu spokesperson explained to CNBC.

In 2015, Hulu made headlines when it landed "Seinfeld" for an amount reported to be between $130 million and $180 million. The spokesperson told CNBC that as a matter of policy, Hulu does not divulge how much it pays for content licensing agreements, but defended the "Golden Girls" acquisition as a good bet.

"In identifying potential acquisitions, we're constantly looking for TV shows that viewers consistently talk about but aren't yet able to stream," he said.

It was 'Sex and the City' before there was a 'Sex and the City'—just with an older cast and more wicker furniture.
Emily Taffel
Public relations executive
Hulu CEO on the changing TV landscape
Hulu CEO on the changing TV landscape

Fair enough, but can a group of retirees from the 1980s pull in the viewers needed to justify the investment?

"Given the fact that shows like 'Seinfeld' and 'The Golden Girls' run so frequently in syndication, it may seem counterintuitive for streaming services to have such significant interest," said Elizabeth Yuko, an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University who has studied the influence of "The Golden Girls" on bioethics.

Hulu's move makes perfect sense in a certain context, Yuko told CNBC. "A lot of the younger generations no longer subscribe to cable … and therefore don't have access to shows like 'The Golden Girls' that we think of as airing constantly."

Christopher Coby, senior research analyst at 7Park Data, a company that analyzes viewership trends on several streaming media services, including Hulu, said that any streaming service hoping to make a splash with viewers needed a full slate of comedy programs for viewers to choose from. He suspects Baby Boomers — and perhaps their adult children — would glom onto "The Golden Girls" when it becomes available.

"Comedy accounts for the most streams of any TV genre," Coby told CNBC, adding that around 20 percent of Hulu TV streams are comedy, for largely competitive reasons. Streaming giant Netflix holds nearly 40 percent of the streaming market, according to 2015 Nielsen data, while Amazon holds 13 percent. Hulu brings up the rear at 6.5 percent.

"Hulu must defend against Netflix and Amazon," Coby said. "For Hulu, continuing to build on a core of library TV is an important part of the growth picture." Netflix already has a big leg up with some of the more iconic TV franchises of the 80s and 90s, he added, including "Cheers," "The Wonder Years" and "Friends." Currently, Amazon licenses "Family Ties," "Dynasty" and "Sex and the City."

The original 'Sex and the City'

Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins
Getty Images

Daniel Malak, an associate at data analytics firm Motionloft, said that the acquisition may be an attempt to court other key groups such as lesbians, gays and bisexuals — a demographic where "The Golden Girls" is wildly popular. Recent estimates place LGBT purchasing power at nearly $1 trillion, making them an attractive advertising target for Hulu, Malak said.

Fordham's Yuko added that the "The Golden Girls" reappearance on a new medium like Hulu has major nostalgic value, and presents an opportunity to introduce a new generation.

For someone like Emily Taffel, a 36-year-old public relations executive who lives in the "Golden Girls'" old stomping grounds of Miami, Hulu's latest deal is an opportunity for both nostalgia and comfort.

"You know how when you're sick, you want something comfortable that you already know? Chicken soup, a hug from your mom," Taffel said, adding that she was already a years-long fan of the show.

"It is one of the best written shows and the humor stands up," she said. "It was 'Sex and the City' before there was a 'Sex and the City' — just with an older cast and more wicker furniture."