Perspectives: Opinions from our network of advisors, investors, operators and analysts on the risks and opportunities they see.
The tongue-in-cheek tagline of Hulu’s first national ad campaign, “we’re about to ruin TV for you,” may ring true for TV fans — but not in the way Hulu originally intended.
On Monday afternoon, AT&T announced that it had sold its 10% minority stake in Hulu, which it acquired as part of its purchase of Time Warner in 2018, to the streaming service for $1.43 billion. Now, the once diversified joint venture is the property of two companies: Disney with a 67% stake and Comcast with a 33% interest. This deal more or less ends one of the last jointly owned streaming services that could satisfy the fragmented needs of the digital consumer without one company driving decisions.
It’s a dramatic change from the cross-network TV fan’s dream that Hulu was a year ago. Then, it was 90% owned in an even split between Comcast, Disney, and Fox and 10% owned by Time Warner. The partnership allowed subscribers to explore the massive libraries of the four media giants, and to catch shows from networks like NBC, ABC and The CW the day after they aired on linear television all for a relatively low monthly fee.
But thanks to massive consolidation in the media industry over the last year — with The Walt Disney Co. buying 21st Century Fox and AT&T acquiring Time Warner — Hulu may soon start to look different, especially with Disney in the driver’s seat.
At Disney’s Investors Day last Thursday, it was clear that Disney sees the value in Hulu and plans to profit from it. Disney paraded out Hulu CEO Randy Freer to tout the relationship with Disney, offered subscriber projections of 40 to 60 million by 2024, and even hinted that it might bundle Hulu with its new family friendly service Disney+ and its quickly growing sports service ESPN+. Meanwhile, it will likely pump Hulu full of its more “adult” content, such as edgy series from FX and R-rated Marvel films, as well as prioritize ABC content.
But it may not just be Disney that gives Hulu a new look.
Consolidation and competition, while fantastic for media companies, is making streaming services puzzling for consumers. Want to binge PEN15? You have to have a Hulu subscription. Still haven’t watched Black Mirror: Bandersnatch? Better bum someone’s Netflix password. Want to get a taste of CBS’s new Twilight Zone reboot? Time to add CBS All Access to your monthly bill.
This itch to have multiple subscriptions to watch specific programming will intensify as major media companies enter the streaming game. Soon, we’ll likely see companies pull their prized IP from services like Netflix and Hulu so they can populate their own services with existing fan favorites rather than burn through cash to create original content.
As WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey said at an AT&T analyst conference last November, streaming services like Netflix “should expect their libraries are going to get a lot thinner.”
We’ve already seen this happen at Netflix with Disney ending its Marvel Television partnership so that it could make Disney+ and Hulu the exclusive homes of the superheroes. We also saw WarnerMedia gouge Netflix with a $100 million fee (a $70 million jump from the previous agreement) to keep its staple sitcom Friends streaming until it debuts its own streaming service later this year. However, this doesn’t seem to be hurting Netflix. On Tuesday, it reported its highest quarterly increase in paid subscribers ever with 9.6 million new subscribers, skyrocketing its subscriber total to 148.9 million overall.
With that said, this disappearance of licensed content from the libraries of competing services is only going to continue as each major telecom company that once owned a stake in Hulu — Disney, Comcast, and AT&T — as well as giants like Viacom, Apple and YouTube, tinker with their direct-to-consumer offerings. We’ll also likely see an increase in platforms that consolidate multiple services into one dashboard while driving subscription revenue for services, such as Amazon Channels and Apple TV.
With the average consumer already subscribing to 3.4 services, we’re entering an interesting waiting period to learn if attractive programming, brand power and convenient bundles will be enough to convince subscribers that they need one more. Additionally, as the number of services desired increases, the total monthly combined cost might approach that of a traditional cable subscription — the exact evil that streaming services were supposed to save consumers from in the first place.
Whether this shift will ruin the allure of streaming for consumers or justify the recent M&A, cash burn and partnership negotiations from media companies will depend on whether consumers are willing to cough up that extra few bucks to add yet another service to their plate.