Walt Disney Co. is in talks to acquire the 30% stake in Hulu held by Comcast Corp., CNBC reported, a deal that would hand over complete control of the video-streaming service.
Disney emerged as 60% owner of Hulu in March when it acquired the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox Inc. for $71 billion. The Burbank entertainment giant increased its stake last week when Hulu agreed to buy out minority investor AT&T Inc. That deal valued Comcast’s stake in the service at $4.5 billion or more.
Hulu, home to hits such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is poised to become a key part of Disney’s emerging direct-to-consumer business, which includes the ESPN+ online sports platform and the new Disney+ streaming service for children and families. Disney is expanding online as more consumers drop traditional pay TV for internet-based competitors such as Netflix Inc. Hulu will focus on more grown-up fare. Last year, the service’s subscriber base grew by 8 million, a rise of nearly 50%.
Comcast, based in Philadelphia, is weighing a number of factors, including valuation, future controls on Hulu and how to use the potential proceeds, CNBC said, citing unnamed sources. It’s unclear whether a deal will come together, the network said.
Disney, which had long-term debt of $17.2 billion at the end of 2018, took on additional borrowing with the Fox deal. Standard & Poor’s lowered its rating on Disney’s obligations by one notch last month, to A from A+, citing operational risks associated with the purchase of Fox assets.
Disney shares rose 1.6% on Thursday to $137.24. The stock is up more than 25% this year. Comcast shares climbed 2.6% to $42.93.
Comcast has never had a big say in Hulu’s operations. The cable operator was barred from influencing the service under a consent decree with the U.S. government linked to its takeover of NBCUniversal in 2011. The service got its start providing catch-up viewing to shows that had just aired on the major networks.
In an interview on CNBC on Thursday, Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts said Hulu is “really valuable.”
“On Hulu, the relationship with NBC — it’s very much in everybody’s interest to maintain,” Roberts said. “We have no new news today on it, other than it’s really valuable. And we’re really glad we own a large piece of it.”
Hulu has grown in subscribers and valuation in recent years, but it is still a financial drag on its owners. Disney said in an investor presentation this month that it plans to expand the service internationally. The company expects Hulu to have as many as 60 million customers by fiscal 2024, up from 25 million last year. Losses, Disney said, would peak at $1.5 billion this year, with profit not attainable for four or five years more.
“We’re still assessing the prospect and timing of international launches, which would have an impact on our financial outlook for Hulu,” Disney Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy said at the event.