Dancing Queen: After Meeting With Microsoft Last Week, Yahoo Is Next on Hulu’s Sales Card

Published on July 5, 2011
by Kara Swisher

Here’s a handy helper for those following the fate of the Hulu premium online video service, whose noisy efforts to sell itself have gotten a lot of attention of late:

“In preliminary talks” = “hawking itself to one of a half dozen big moneybag tech companies who will visit with Hulu’s bankers and management to see its presentation at Morgan Stanley’s office in Century City in Los Angeles.”

Last Friday, for example, that meant a look-see for Microsoft execs, to show the software giant the story of how paying top dollar for the popular Hulu would be a great investment.

This week, sources said, Yahoo will get the expected gander at the books too, among the other companies targeted by Hulu as part of a sales process in its very early stages.

Among those companies on the short list, sources said, along with Microsoft and Yahoo are: Google, Verizon, AT&T and Amazon.

None of these should come as a surprise, since they all have a big interest in the digital distribution of content business.

Google is perhaps the most interesting and difficult of the group, due to both its massive YouTube unit and the even more massive interest by government regulators about its disturbing massiveness.

Amazon is the company that seems most suited as a Hulu buyer, since it already makes its business selling and distributing content. In addition, Hulu CEO Jason Kilar was a former exec — bringing a certain level of familiarity and presumably much less of the grumpy disgruntlement that he experienced with Hulu’s current media giant owners.

Microsoft seems like the longest shot and least enthusiastic, although it certainly could afford it.

As for Yahoo: Good lord, it needs something sexy to tell weary investors.

Not in the initial round, but other possible acquirers Hulu is targeting: Facebook, Netflix, Samsung and Liberty Media.

And definitely not among those kicking the tires: Disney, News Corp. and Comcast, the trio of partners who own Hulu, along with Providence Equity Partners.

The big question, of course, is whether media-focused Apple — a notorious buyer of almost nothing — would be interested in Hulu.

These blind dates with the best possible buyers will presumably give each insight into Hulu’s business and give Hulu information on what they are looking for.

Sources who have heard the pitch said Hulu is positioning itself as an inevitable competitor to cable, which seems an odd position to take, unless it can get regular access to the kind of top-drawer content that consumers want.

And that will be the most important issue for anyone buying Hulu: The time and terms of rights to the television and movie content on the site, which has been a critical part of its success.

Buyers I have interviewed said Hulu has to offer at least an 18-month license for its content and a pile of rights to hit shows to differentiate itself from competitors.

As Peter Kafka wrote, Hulu buyers would indeed get exclusive content, but with strings attached.

He also noted that the latest content licenses for Hulu’s owner/partners — Disney’s ABC and News Corp.’s Fox — have recently been completed, deals that will stay intact if Hulu is sold.

Unlike Netflix, which has had to pay top dollar for a small pile of premium content while deftly using a large archive of older content to attract subscribers, Hulu’s success has had a lot to do with more access to popular current shows offered by its media giant owners.

Those shows include TV hits such as “The Office” and “Glee.”

That access has become a point of contention with those owners, who have differed with Hulu management about what comes next for the mostly advertising-supported site, even though its slick product has been a clear hit with consumers.

Of course, some speculate that Hulu might not sell at all, just as it never went public as it had said it might do previously. In that case, it will be interesting to see what will become of Hulu once the music stops.

(And, if anyone would like to email me the Hulu presentation or notes on it, please do, so I can formulate a bid myself!)

But, until this deal churns slowly, leakily and loudly forward — let’s enjoy some apt Hulu content. As usual, the fun version of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” by the kids from “Glee” was not available on the site.

Thus, I selected frequent “Glee” guest star Gwyneth Paltrow belting out Joan Jett’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me” on the show, as a good alternate metaphor for the sales process:

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