Hulu‘s future appears as murky as ever after today’s news that the website won’t be sold after all, and it nearly seems like there are losers everywhere: Hulu’s co-owners didn’t have the money they needed for the services, Hulu’s employees and executives are still tied to a set of co-owners that might have different tips for its future, and Hulu‘s users most surely can expect more content to go behind the paywall.
However there’s one exception: Comcast. The pay TV operator owns 1 / 3 of Hulu, but it’s not permitted to impact its business, due to regulatory conditions put in place when Comcast merged with NBC Universal. These conditions additionally prevented Comcast from having any kind of say on the aborted sale, but I’d bet that the folks over at Comcast are quite happy with today’s result.
That’s simply because the top three contenders for Hulu included two of Comcast’s greatest rivals: AT&T and DirecTV. Cable companies just like Comcast have seen many of their TV program customers flee to satellite and phone company rivals, and are now beginning to feel the threat of cord cutters too.
The typical narrative around AT&T’s and DirecTV’s bids for Hulu, which arestated to have been about $1 billion, is that the companies were seeking to use the site to power their TV Everywhere services, permitting their subscribers even easier use of complimentary catch-up programming online.
However here’s the thing: TV Everywhere isn’t the be all and end all for pay TV providers, particularly as these companies are seeking to compete more strongly with incumbents and fend off new threats: There are cord cutters hesitant to pay premium prices for costly bundles, there are new entrants like Intel and its OnCue service that may pave the way for online-only subscription providers with a live TV component, and there is Aereo the startup that has won in court with its special take on broadcast retransmission, letting it skip payments to broadcasters and provide live TV streams on the cheap.
Intel and Aereo may possibly not succeed, and cord cutting might stay small for the moment. However all of these trends indicate the inevitability of what people in the call a virtual cable operator a business that doesn’t own the pipes, but instead streams live TV on the internet, enabling it to compete with all of the existing providers in any market. Pay TV companies could ignore this threat, or they could see it as an opportunity. Reports that AT&T has talked to Aereo about a cooperation manage to indicate that a minimum of that company isn’t willing to watch for others to decide its fate.
Considering that, buying Hulu might have been more than simply a TV Everywhere play for AT&T and DirecTV. It might have been the first step towards an online-based pay-TV subscription, with a solid consumer base, name recognition and confirmed technology.