Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka

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Yahoo’s Mayer Has Met with Hulu Execs in a Preliminary Look-See at Premium Video Unit


According to numerous sources close to the situation, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer recently met with top execs at Hulu, the premium video service whose big media company owners have been considering selling it for some months.

Sources said Yahoo is “in the process,” although the Silicon Valley Internet giant has not made any kind of formal bid. Other players whom sources said are considering purchasing all or parts of Hulu include: Former News Corp. COO Peter Chernin, who now has a successful and well-funded multimedia and investment company called the Chernin Group; Guggenheim Partners digital arm, which is led by former Yahoo interim CEO Ross Levinsohn; and Amazon.

Sources said Mayer also had an extensive getting-to-know-you meeting, which was apparently not held at Hulu’s offices in Santa Monica, Calif., along with COO Henrique De Castro. The discussion is taking place in the wake of Yahoo’s failed bid — largely engineered by De Castro — to purchase a majority stake in France Télécom’s Dailymotion video service, after a top French government official said Yahoo could not own 75 percent of the company.

Had the deal — which was reportedly valued at $300 million — gone through, it would have been the most significant by Mayer since she took over at the company last July. Thus far, she has limited her purchases to small mobile startup.

While the meetings with Hulu are only preliminary, Yahoo has been to this video rodeo before, having seriously considering buying Hulu when it was previously being shopped by its owners, News Corp., Disney and Comcast. (News Corp. also owns this site.)

Of course, if Yahoo’s interest becomes more serious, Mayer will have to make important visits to top execs at those media giants, since they control the rights to critical content, and thus Hulu’s value.

As Peter Kafka noted in a previous post about Hulu’s possible sale, “much hinges on the licensing rights News Corp., Disney and Comcast would provide for the money-losing site, as well as what happens to the $300 million debt its owners have taken on in the last year.”

Without those rights, Hulu by itself is a very pretty Web site and video platform, but not worth the billions it would be with very long-term television rights, content that attracts users. Currently, sources said its media owners are offering two to three years of rights, with a lot of flexibility over removing content from the site, which is not quite as attractive a deal (to say the least).

But video is a key component of Yahoo’s strategy going forward. Along with mobile efforts, Mayer has explicitly told investors that video was a key to company under her tenure.

Coincidentally, today in an onstage interview at a Wired conference in New York, Mayer broadly addressed the video issue when asked a question about the topic, noting it was important across all of Yahoo’s properties.

“I think video is really important … video is something that we’re all innately designed and born to experience, everyone is born being able to watch and to hear,” she said. “Video is just this amazing format.”

Mayer would know that well, having been at Google when the search giant bought YouTube, ironically snatching it at the last minute from a competing bid by Yahoo, which was then led by Terry Semel. Since then, YouTube has become the most important and powerful player in the space by far.

Yahoo, despite being one of the largest video players on the Web, has mostly been a lackluster competitor in the arena, pinging over the years from creating original content to doing branded deals with media companies, but never establishing a major beachhead with consumers as Hulu did from scratch.

Short of a full acquisition, there may be a way for Yahoo to partner and invest in Hulu, instead of buying it outright that works for all sides — owners get a new owner to foot part of the bill and also increase distribution, and Yahoo can claim that it’s providing users with exponentially more content that would help Yahoo’s long-declining engagement problem.

Sources said News Corp. and Disney have mulled scenarios where one or both companies hang on to the site, while Comcast has no control over Hulu’s fate, having given up its management rights to the site as a concession to federal regulators.

But the strength of the Hulu brand is clear and it has had some success in building a more significant business. While a lot of its video offerings are free, about four million people are paying for a Hulu Plus subscription.

Still, Hulu’s strength might be lagging, especially given after talented founding leader Jason Kilar recently left. Last year, Hulu was a top 10 video site, according to comScore. No longer — in a report in March, it had dropped out of the top 10.

While this likely has more to do with methodology than real decline in Hulu ratings, it does show that while it’s the biggest thing Yahoo could buy or invest in, Yahoo itself has plenty of video views, many more than Hulu.

The question for Mayer then is how much of Yahoo’s multi-billon-dollar cash kitty she wants to bet on a big video play. She might also be considering buying several smaller ones, said sources, with Yahoo having also looked at some smaller video sites, including Blip and Grab Media.

A spokeswoman for Hulu declined to comment and Yahoo PR has not responded to a query for comment (if ever).

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I’m a giant vat of creative juices.

— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo