Peter Kafka

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Is Jason Kilar Trying to Get Fired?

Is Hulu’s CEO trying to get pushed out the door?

That’s the question of the day for the TV and Web video world, prompted by a blog post Jason Kilar published last night.

It’s a lengthy read about the TV business and where it’s headed, and most people I’ve talked to today think it’s smart and well-written.

Some of them also believe Kilar wrote it so that his bosses–executives at News Corp.’s Fox, Disney’s ABC, and Comcast’s NBCU–will give him the hook.

That’s because a lot of what Kilar wrote challenges the TV networks’ existing business model: He argues that there are too many ads, and that consumers want to be able to watch their shows on demand, not on a linear schedule. And, crucially, he argues that the cable network bundle is on its way out.

In other words, change or become the music labels: “History has shown that incumbents tend to fight trends that challenge established ways and, in the process, lose focus on what matters most: customers.”

And all of that makes perfect sense. Except for the part where he says it in public, while working for a company owned by three TV networks.

Kilar’s post began making waves immediately last night, and the Financial Times’ Matthew Garrahan was able to quickly find several network executives who are agog at the post.

Most tellingly, he got a Disney rep to officially distance the company from Kilar’s post, stating that his views (published on the official Hulu blog) were “personal and clearly not shared by anyone at Walt Disney.”

In fact, his views are almost certainly shared by some Disney executives, and others at Hulu backers News Corp.’s Fox and Comcast’s NBCU. (News Corp. also owns this Web site.) It’s just that they have no intention of changing their business anytime soon. Especially now that they’ve gotten cable providers to start paying them for content they used to give away, via “retransmission” fees.

“80, 90 percent of what he says is right,” says an executive at one of Hulu’s network owners. “But why print that? Does he think we’re going to say, ‘Oh, thank you! You’re right! We’d never thought of that! Let’s give away retrans!’? I can’t see what he thinks will happen.”

So here’s one possibility: Kilar knows he can’t win. And his post is supposed to be his “Jerry Maguire moment”, as Garrahan puts it–a fireworks display you put on because you don’t want to work at your current job anymore.

The other possibility: Kilar genuinely thinks he can win.

Up until now the former Amazon executive has done a marvelous job of building a site everyone was convinced would fail, and then sustaining–and expanding–a joint venture everyone thought would collapse.

Kilar has pulled some of that off with brinkmanship. As last week’s well-reported Wall Street Journal piece notes, Kilar threatened to quit last fall, when he was trying to get the networks to agree to cut their monthly price for Hulu Plus. He didn’t get the 50 percent cut he’d been pushing for, but he still managed to get the networks to agree to cut the price by 20 percent, to $8.

Also note that Kilar’s post quite clearly argues that the path he’s pushing for will be better for the networks in the end: “We believe content owners are in a strong position to make higher returns from TV content distribution in the future than they have historically.”

But if Kilar thought his arguments would carry more force in public, he may well have miscalculated. This could all blow over with time, but for now, at least, he has some very bummed backers.

“Here’s the irony. Jason is probably best to lead Hulu. But he is also too righteous/robot to do it ‘the wrong way’ or a way he won’t agree with,” says an industry executive.

Another reports that network executives are “crazy, angry” over the post. “I’d be stunned if Jason was still there in 60 days.”

I’ve asked Kilar for additional comment. I don’t expect to get it.

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— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”