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Where Is Hulu Heading?

Posted by Alan at 8:13 PM on August 18, 2010

There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding Hulu lately, and I am trying to figure it all out.  There’s Hulu Plus, rumors of an IPO, content questions…the list goes on.  So, what do we make of it all?

Let’s start with Hulu Plus.  For those not familiar, Hulu Plus  is the recently announced, and released, paid version of Hulu.  You can get full details on what’s available in Plus here.  In a nutshell, though, you get every episode from the current season of all shows on ABC, NBC, and FOX, plus all episodes from past seasons of many of the shows.  This comes with a price tag of $9.99 per month.  That’s not a bad price – a whole lot cheaper than any cable or satellite subscription.  There’s no trial though.  You have to pay right from day one, which has been a big drawback for many consumers.

There have also been recent rumors of a Hulu IPO [initial public (stock) offering].  I would have to say it’s a fairly credible rumor based on it coming from the Wall Street Journal.  Based on that story, Hulu may be worth as much as $2 billion on the market and they are looking to use money raised from stock to land contracts from other content providers.  With only three networks on board there is plenty of room for expansion.

That segues nicely into the last question – content.  Obviously an IPO would allow them to have the funds to really negotiate some big time deals – think CBS, HBO or maybe even Disney.  But if that doesn’t pan out, then how do they build relationships to gain more content?

So, we have looked at the three aspects of what Hulu is doing and/or trying to do right now.  Where does that take them?

First, let’s look at Plus.  It’s a good offering.  After all, everyone’s chief complaint had always been the shifting content.  Any given show you wanted had only certain episodes available and those seemed to change regularly.  So this is a solid win for them.  But, what about subscriber numbers?  That seems to be kept secret from every source I checked.  Everyone talked up Plus when it was announced, but how many actually signed up?  Or, maybe more telling, how many signed up expecting a trial only to find that they had to pay from day one?  We need numbers, combined with ad revenue (which is different from every source), to determine how they are really faring.

Second, the IPO (or rumored IPO).  If it’s true, and if the valuation ($2 billion) is in the right ballpark then that solves a big content issue.  More content available, even if it’s only in Plus (and I would assume most would be) means more users.  That much money, or even close to that much, would allow for negotiations for big content providers.  Every major provider added, such as an HBO, would add huge amounts of value to Hulu and their revenue.

And third, the content question.  This one pretty much hinges on number two.  If the IPO happens, and goes as laid out in the WSJ, then this is moot.  But, if not, then where does Hulu turn to add subscribers?  They have a decent stream of revenue from ads, plus whatever they are getting from Plus subscribers, so there is some money to work with.  In this case they will need to work with smaller networks to get content.

So, let me come to a conclusion, such as it is, here.  We know nothing about the Plus subscribers and, therefore, nothing of the revenue from the program.  The IPO is a rumor, although fairly well based.  If it happens then Hulu has the money to go after the big fish,  But that doesn’t mean they will land any of them.  I think Disney is out of the question for now.  I think CBS and HBO are possible.  If they don’t do the IPO then they go after smaller content providers.  I would think Comedy Central would be on top of the list.  Having The Daily Show would really be a feather in the cap.  But, it can’t go in Plus, because it’s already free on Comedy Central’s web site.  Showtime might also be possible, and they have some sought-after original content.  Then all of the others – Discovery, History, WB, USA, etc.

It seems that they can make it without the IPO and without making a lot off of Plus (if they get something like The Daily Show in their regular feed).  So, they are viable for the foreseeable future.  But, I think, as they stand now, they are not in the best place.  They will definitely need revenue to add either one or two big providers or several smaller ones.  And, depending on who they add, will make the difference of if the content goes to Plus or not.  But some, no matter how much it hurts them, will have to go to the regular, free feed.  After all, that’s what brings the initial views.

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