Hulu, the First Online Content Provider To Become A Cable Network?

Hulu is now an online catch up service that operates as a Website showing television. But it apparently wants to become an catch-up Website that shows its TV packages through cable/telco set-tops--that already do that.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Hulu has approached cable and telco operators like Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, Verizon and AT&T to strike a deal that would add Hulu to their pay package so viewers could buy whole seasons of series, kick back and enjoy 2012 all over again.  (Spoiler alert: Obama wins; Jon Hamm is everywhere and so is Honey Boo Boo.)

Of course, most of the larger cable operators already have video on demand offerings that have increasingly become part of their own value-added package, so that my ordinary Comcast service is now a gussied-up Xfinity service that gives me a lot more.

But on Xfinity and other cable linked on-demand services, you only get a few of the most recent episodes, not whole seasons, and sometimes not as quickly.

All by itself, for a consumer, Hulu’s presence on cable is no big whoop (and not necessarily a done deal, as the WSJ stresses. They’ve just begun talks.)

But adding Hulu to cable packages might work. It has name recognition, and some loyalty from members, and it would make going to Hulu seem even easier than it is now. OTT devices and smart TVs are obviously already making online services arrive on that same screen; this Hulu idea eliminates the need.

Nobody quite says it, but isn’t this idea a bit like Hulu becoming a cable pay service, almost a kind of HBO GO, but in reverse?

On the other side of the equation, ABC (that would be Disney, part owner of Hulu) and Fox (that would be 21st Century Fox¸ also an owner) are deeply into keeping their traditional TV audiences happy with their own TV Everywhere schemes, which seems to make Hulu redundant. Comcast (NBC) is the federally-mandated silent Hulu owner, which, already noted, has its Xfinity play in something like 30 million cable homes.  (All of that is why Hulu considered selling itself off earlier this summer.)

So why is Hulu offering itself to pay-TV providers? I think the answer there is that TV content providers and the advertisers that support them don’t care much where you see the programs, as long as you do, just like Marlboro Red doesn’t care if you buy the soft package or the flip top box as long as you keep ingesting their nicotine addiction delivery system. (That’s also part of the reason Hulu wasn’t sold.)

Variety makes the probably good point that Hulu offering to partner with its pay TV providers “shows that it’s more eager to position itself as an ally to the distributors that pay the freight for Hulu’s parent companies.” That’s obviously becoming a bigger issue now that CBS pretty much humbled Time Warner Cable in their retransmission consent battle.

Ex-Fox exec Mike Hopkins now in charge of Hulu, is way familiar with distribution etiquette, I guess you’d call it, and knows how to play that game. Also, Hulu has never been owned or run by idiots, just by companies that either weren’t paying full attention or couldn’t agree on what to do with it. It could be, to borrow from the HBO GO allusion a few paragraphs ago, that Hulu is angling to become the HBO of its era. But instead of old movies it deals with old TV, and like the old HBO, it offers a smattering of original dramas and comedies, with more to come.

In any event, it could be the first online content provider that converts to become better known as a TV service—and, beats the OTT rush.    

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