Comcast has a few cards to play in Hulu sale process

While News Corp. and Walt Disney Co. consider offers for Hulu from several companies including Time Warner Cable, Yahoo and DirecTV, what all this means for the third owner of the online video site — Comcast Corp. — remain a mystery.

Comcast inherited its 32% stake in Hulu when it purchased control of NBCUniversal in 2011. As part of the consent decree Comcast agreed to in return for government approval of the deal, it is a silent partner in Hulu’s operations for seven years.

There is an assumption that if Disney and News Corp. sell out of Hulu then Comcast will do the same.

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But while Comcast can’t increase its stake in Hulu or have any say in the operations, it also doesn’t have to sell just because the other owners choose to do so, according to people familiar with the decree.


Also, whoever buys Hulu does not need to purchase Comcast’s stake to take control of the site. Acquiring Disney and News Corp. is essentially buying 100% of the company at two-thirds the price, at least until the decree expires in 2018, which in digital years is a lifetime from now.

Depending on who buys Hulu, Comcast may not want to sell anyway. Even if it has no say in Hulu, if the popular online site ends up in the lands of another pay-TV distributor and/or a future competitor, it may behoove Comcast to to remain a partner in the company.

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Furthermore, if Comcast stays in Hulu and it grows in value down the road, then it can be bought out at a higher price. If the site doesn’t grow, then Comcast could possibly pick it up on the cheap. Comcast wasn’t a founding partner and hasn’t sunk nearly the capital into it that News Corp. and Disney have.

Disney and News Corp. are considering a sale in large part because they are not on the same page with regards to how best to operate Hulu. Comcast doesn’t have those issues and can just sit back and see what happens.

Sometimes doing nothing is the best strategy.

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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.