Comcast + Hulu = No more free lunch?

Categories: TV Business

Written By

October 5th, 2009

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The LA Times today has an article that poses the question of whether Comcast gaining a controlling share of NBCU will put Hulu's currently free content in jeopardy.

"Would Comcast put an end to the Hulu model of using the Web to distribute free TV content?" asked Michael Nathanson, senior media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "Will Comcast continue to support Hulu?"

Hulu, a partnership between NBC, Fox and Walt Disney Co., has been a nagging concern among Wall Street investors, who see the site not as a hedge against Internet piracy or viral video phenomenon YouTube but as a threat to the economic underpinnings of the television business. The $22 billion a year in cable and satellite TV subscriptions paid to programmers underwrites the high cost of producing all forms of television programming.

Hulu already has limited users' access to certain cable programs, including FX's "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia," in response to an outcry from the television producers and cable companies that object to paying TV programmers hundreds of millions of dollars each year for shows that are offered free online.

Comcast Chief Executive Brian L. Roberts is among the cable executives who have made their concerns known to TV programmers, both privately and publicly. He and other cable executives fear that Hulu could become the free alternative to cable TV subscriptions.

"If I am any one of these programmers, not just ESPN, but the Food Network . . . and I have a business in that 50%, 60%, 70% of my business comes from subscriptions, I want to think long and hard before I just put that content out there for free and not think through what it is going to mean to my business," Roberts said at an investor conference in May.

Owning content would give Comcast some control over the matter.

"Arguably, their ability to shape online content distribution, and to recast windows for video on demand, would be an important attribute of any deal," wrote Craig Moffett, a cable industry analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein.

I'm not a fan of the Comcast deal, and the question has been raised in the comments previously, but Comcast is not going to be the deciding factor in whether Hulu continues to be free or not. There are two other media corporations involved in Hulu, and I don't see them agreeing to a change like that at this time. But I can easily imagine that when it is time to renegotiate current deals, NBCU content may not be available on Hulu any longer. For those of us who have gotten rid of subscription cable in favor of Hulu, let's hope Vivendi decides to keep NBCU.

 
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