Who Wants Hulu?

The Wall Street Journal says that video-streaming service Hulu might be shopping for a buyer. An unsolicited offer from an interested buyer didn't exactly lead to a deal, but it sparked the notion in Hulu's leadership that there might be something to that exit strategy.

The project nearly went public in 2010, presumably at a valuation of about $2 billion, but that plan was shelved pending a bushel of upcoming content license renewals. Hulu was reportedly profitable last year with something like $260 million in revenue, and that was before launching the subscription-based Hulu Plus service.

The Los Angeles Times later said that the uninvited bidder may have been Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) . The inveterate Internet portal sure could use a vital property such as Hulu these days, but the deal would probably run north of the $3 billion mark now. Short of a stock-swap acquisition or a whole lot of fresh debt, Yahoo! can ill afford a move of that audacious size.

So if Hulu decides to go the sell-out route, who are the most likely buyers?

The insiders
Let's start with the consortium that owns Hulu today:

  • Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA  ) still owns a significant part of Hulu, although federal regulators made it give up its board seats -- or else forget about the NBC Universal merger. The same conditions make Comcast an unlikely buyer of the whole enchilada, and Uncle Sam would put his foot down if it tried.
  • Walt Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) CEO Bob Iger understands and appreciates the power of digital media and certainly has the financial wherewithal to take full ownership. Board member and largest shareholder Steve Jobs would love having his property take a larger role in the digital future. But that would mean becoming a distributor of other networks' TV shows, which is not a role Disney plays often. NBC broadcasts several hit shows produced by network-less Time Warner, for example, but Disney's hits are in-house productions. Therefore, Disney is another unlikely Hulu owner.
  • News Corp. (NYSE: NWS  ) might be a better fit. Not only is the company happy to show outsider content such as American Idol on its Fox network, but News Corp. has even dabbled in general online video through its MySpace property. Then again, the MySpace experience didn't turn out well, perhaps scaring News Corp. away from further online adventures. Still, this is the most likely -- and the only plausible -- Hulu buyer out of its backing corporate triumvirate.

Private-equity firm Providence Equity Partners is more likely than any of its publicly traded brethren to make a big move.

The outsiders
And that segues right into outsiders looking in:

  • We've already dismissed Yahoo!, as hungry as the company might be for a hot digital media property. The first hint of a bidding war would send this suitor packing. Sorry, you yahoos.
  • How about Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) ? Big G is rich enough, could see synergies from marrying Hulu with its YouTube property, and is generally no stranger to large, strategic buyouts. If Hulu really is for sale, I'd fully expect Google to make a serious offer.
  • Likewise, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) would love to blend Hulu into iTunes and iCloud, and the media licenses could help Apple TV become something more than a hobby. Here's Steve's real chance to do what he probably can't get Disney to do.
  • Someone's going to suggest Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX  ) if I don't, so let's jump the gun. That would be a fun deal in theory, but could never fly in reality. Regulators would never allow it to happen for antitrust reasons, Netflix prefers to pour money directly into content licenses rather than scene-stealing buyouts, and there's enough overlap between the Hulu and Netflix catalogs to make me wonder where the value would be. Just forget this one.

A bidding war involving two or more of Google, Apple, News Corp., and private-equity titans wouldn't surprise me at all. Wherever this online elephant goes, it's bound to shake things up.

Hulu is one small cog in the cloud-computing revolution. The idea of connecting consumers to a central media hub sounds more obvious day by day. Watch this Foolish video to see why those two words make Bill Gates shake in his Italian leather boots. It's 100% free -- and watching videos is the right thing to do after thinking about Hulu, right?

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Google and Netflix, but he holds no other position in any company mentioned. See his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Yahoo!, Google, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Disney, Netflix, Google, Apple, and Yahoo! and creating a bull call spread position in Apple and buying puts on Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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