So Hulu’s for sale -– it has hired investment banks to find a buyer. But what, exactly, would a purchaser receive? The answer could be not much — unless Hulu can cut long-term and preferably exclusive deals for TV shows and movies from its main program suppliers and equity owners News Corp, Disney, and Comcast’s NBCUniversal. The problem is that those deals will be hard to strike before a sale. That means anyone buying Hulu would need deep pockets to buy new programming –- or to compete with Netflix and possibly other online services for existing entertainment. “Hulu’s real competitors are the cable companies,” says media investor and author Larry Kramer.
A sale would show that the vision that led to the creation of Hulu in 2008 has been a bust. At the time, the broadcast networks wanted a slick destination to offer ad-supported TV shows online. It was their best defense against seeing companies such as Apple and Google move in and dominate online video the way Apple has with online music. But ads haven’t materialized the way initial backers had hoped. Last year, the company created subscription service Hulu Plus. CEO Jason Kilar says more than 1 million customers will sign up for the $8-a-month product by year’s end.
Yet Hulu Plus is an also-ran against Netflix, which has 22.8 million domestic subscribers and is spending a fortune to license TV shows and movies. That’s one reason why it’s been so hard for Hulu’s existing owners to cut long-term deals with the company. They want Netflix’s cash. Disney CEO Bob Iger said last month that “we never believed that Hulu would end up … in an exclusive position as a distributor” for Disney’s entertainment.
Another obstacle to long-term deals: Hulu complicates one of ABC, Fox, and NBC’s most important initiatives. They want cable and satellite operators to pay a license fee to retransmit network programming from local TV stations. Pay TV companies want to know why they should do so when Hulu give viewers opportunities to see their favorite shows without a cable subscription, and sometimes for free. Cable also sees video on demand and its TV Everywhere online initiative as alternatives to Hulu.
The inherent conflicts of interest in Hulu’s ownership structure have also made it hard to cut long-term programming deals. For example, early this year even Fox’s and Disney’s board members couldn’t see the terms Hulu had accepted to get shows from one of their competitors — Viacom. Also, the Justice Department and FCC in January insisted as a condition for Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal that the company offer programs to Hulu on the same terms and conditions as other broadcasters. That raises the possibility that the government might review any programming deals Disney and Fox would strike with Hulu to ensure that Comcast has complied.
Without long-term programming deals, Hulu offers a brand name, a subscription list, an effective video player and an ad sales force. That’s worth something. But it would just be a down-payment on a venture that would require a lot more cash, and luck, just to have a chance to succeed.