If Disney buys AT&T’s Hulu stake, does it change anything for Comcast?

Hulu with Live TV
AT&T and Disney are reportedly working on a deal for AT&T's 10% stake in Hulu. (Hulu)

Disney will become the majority owner of Hulu soon, and a new report suggests that it could snap up WarnerMedia’s 10% stake in the streaming service as well. What, if anything, does this mean for Comcast?

According to Variety, AT&T and Disney are engaged in active discussions about a sale of WarnerMedia’s Hulu stake. As the report pointed out, Disney last summer estimated Hulu’s total value to be approximately $9.3 billion, which in turn suggests that WarnerMedia’s piece of Hulu is worth about $930 million.

AT&T said back in November that it would look into selling its stake in Hulu to raise funds that could be used in part to pay down the massive debt load AT&T is carrying after acquiring Time Warner for $85.4 billion. Disney is in the homestretch of acquiring 21st Century Fox—including the company’s 30% stake in Hulu—for $71.3 billion. After that deal, Disney will own 60% of Hulu.

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So, it makes sense then that AT&T and Disney are talking about WarnerMedia’s 10%. But if Disney’s stake in Hulu rose to 70%, would it change anything for Comcast, which will still own the other 30%?

Comcast has said before that it does not intend to sell its Hulu stake to Disney. NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke told Variety that Comcast, even though it’s launching its own streaming service in 2020, doesn’t need to hurry into a buyout deal with Disney.

“Fifty years from now will we be in Hulu? No, I don’t think we will. But I don’t think we’ll sell in five minutes,” Burke told the publication. “Disney would like to buy us out. I don’t think anything’s going to happen in the near term. (NBCU’s service) will be one of many and it’s going to be as competitive with Netflix and Amazon and Hulu as anyone else.”

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Comcast’s upcoming streaming will be similar to Hulu. It will be ad-supported and free to watch for Comcast and Sky pay TV subscribers. Comcast will also sell an ad-free tier and a subscription option for non-pay TV subscribers. For the sake of that service’s success, Comcast could decide it should no longer sell its content to Hulu. That, in turn, could lead to Comcast selling its 30% to Disney.

But as BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield pointed out last year—notably, before Comcast announced its streaming service plans—Comcast has good reasons to not sell. Greenfield’s reasons include incoming licensing revenue from Hulu, access to data and to the inner workings of a thriving direct-to-consumer platform and a chance to stick it to Disney.

“Relations between Disney and Comcast have been and continue to be poor. These two companies and their senior executives are NOT friends. This is war; Comcast remaining in Hulu and keeping three Board seats that enable them to have a say in Hulu’s future will drive Disney absolutely crazy. This might be reason enough to keep the 30% stake,” Greenfield wrote.

Comcast has reasons for and against offloading its Hulu stake to Disney but the fate of AT&T’s 10% likely isn’t one of them. Disney is planning to launch its Disney+ streaming service in 2019 and may explore ways to offer that service along with Hulu and ESPN+ as a package deal. But that likely won’t happen until 2020, which is when Comcast’s streaming service is launching.

So, if Comcast does decide to sell its Hulu stake, it likely won’t happen until next year. By then Comcast will have an idea of how its new streaming service is catching on, and Disney will have more incentive to own full control of Hulu so it can fully integrate the service into its direct-to-consumer plans.

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