Hulu is about to explode in a wave of network greed.
A memo leaked to Variety, then spread just about everywhere, indicates that News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWS) and Disney (NYSE:DIS) are deeply split on the company's future. The third network owner, Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), can't exercise full discretion here because of its purchase contract for the working half of NBC/Universal, but it would be interesting to get its thinking.
The short version is that News Corp. wants to demand all users prove they have cable access to its programs before they can get them less than a week after broadcast, and it wants to add commercials to its shows on the service. Disney doesn't.
Commenters at Gizmodo say the networks are doing just what the music industry did before iTunes took over the channel. They're letting their greed and individual agendas prevent them from competing.
If TheVerge is right Hulu's privileged position regarding TV content is about to disappear, as is CEO Jason Kilar, and private equity partner Provident Equity could also be bought out, leaving the networks in charge.
But if the networks don't have a common purpose, or a common strategy, what does being in charge actually mean? Nothing good.
All this comes against a background of generally good news for the network owners. CMCSA is up nearly 70% in the last year, DIS is up nearly 60%, and NWS is up nearly 50%. (CBS (NYSE:CBS), which was split off from Viacom, is also up nearly 50% in the last year.)
By contrast Viacom (NASDAQ:VIAB) is up just 10%. The difference is that the first three companies are vertically-integrated, controlling both stations and production, while Viacom requires distribution from cable or satellite companies.
The point of mentioning Viacom is that NWSA's preferred strategy is most similar to that of Viacom, which has been aggressively inserting ads in its online shows and requiring users to come to its site to see that content. Yet Viacom hasn't been profiting from that strategy - its revenue has been on the decline due to the advertising environment and its margins are flat.
You can argue that these are problems unique to Viacom, which faces the sudden decline of its Spongebob Squarepants franchise and an 80-plus old founding CEO reluctant to give up power. Or is this unique at all?
Investors have done well by all Hulu's owners in the last year, and the pending split in NWS should provide a nice pop in valuation. But if conservative money has funds to put to work, I think DIS is the better play here. I believe we're in the early days of a long-term recovery, and DIS is well-positioned, it seems to have a solid line-up of management up-and-down the line, and it fully understands both how to monetize content and please customers. Most weeks, ABC wins the demo.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.