DirecTV

Conflicted Hulu owners face tough choices

July 10, 2013: 6:40 AM ET

The media companies that are selling Hulu aren't bargaining over price so much as what kind of deals they can get from the new owners.

Something to smile about? Maybe not.

Something to smile about? Maybe not.

FORTUNE -- Now that all the bids are in for Hulu, the question is: What will become of the service? And the answer is: Nobody knows for sure, but it's possible that the Hulu as we know it will disappear, or at least be diminished from a viewer's perspective.

The reason for that is the odd, conflicted position the current media-company owners find themselves in. Disney (DIS), News Corp. (NWSA), and Comcast (CMCSA) want to get as much as they can for the service they co-own, but they also want to be able to strike the best possible licensing deals they can with whoever buys the site. Those two considerations are in opposition, and striking a balance won't be easy. Clearly, the owners will take a lot less money for Hulu than it might be worth if they can get favorable licensing deals, which would explain why a company that has grown so fast over the past two years has nevertheless seen its reported value cut in half, from $2 billion in 2011 to the $1 billion that bidder DirecTV (DTV) has offered.

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The site's main value lies in the availability of current, hit shows, especially to subscribers of the premium Hulu Plus service. But broadcasters -- such as Disney, News Corp., and Comcast -- want to limit that availability to give themselves more bargaining power with other streaming services like Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon (AMZN), as well as the on-demand services of cable operators. Allowing easy, cheap access to those shows lowers their marketplace value. Depending on what restrictions are included in a sale agreement, viewers might not be able to enjoy their favorite shows on Hulu for much longer -- or, if they don't catch them when they first air on the networks, they might have to put off viewing them for as long as a month.

The bidders are: DirecTV, a partnership between AT&T (T) and the Chernin Group, and a bid from Time Warner Cable (TWC) to take a piece of the company, though such a deal is unlikely because the current owners want to unload all of it. CNBC reported Tuesday that Hulu had rejected another bid from a partnership between Guggenheim Digital Media and KKR (KKR).

DirecTV is reportedly in the lead at the moment. It supposedly wants to run Hulu both as a standalone service and as part of a bundle for its satellite subscribers. The standalone service would be used to entice people without pay-TV service to sign up for DirecTV. That might mean that availability of shows on Hulu Plus would be more restricted than it is now. DirecTV might also use Hulu as a platform to beam shows to its subscribers over the Internet.

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Much less clear is what the other bidders might have in mind. With Guggenheim and KKR out of the picture, all the remaining bidders are already video distributors of one kind or another.

Broadcasters are seeking longer delays between the time a show airs and the time it shows up on Hulu, according to the Wall Street Journal. Many shows are now available the day after they air. Some, such as shows owned by News Corp. (The Simpsons, for instance), are delayed for 8 days after airing on the network. Broadcasters want a 30-day delay. They also want shows to remain available on the site for two years, while the bidders have said they want to keep shows for three or four years, the Journal reported.

Hulu is losing money. And there's another complication to all this: The free side, which is ad-supported and much more limited, makes a profit, but is growing very slowly. Hulu Plus, which costs $7.99 a month, is growing fast, but is still losing money. The service has about 77,000 episodes available from nearly 500 sources, but current, hit shows make up the bulk of the site's value -- something that's glaringly apparent from the ads -- if any -- that run on old reruns of less-popular shows.

Hulu's owners are expected to pick a winner sometime in the next two weeks.

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