After Fox deal, Disney looks to harness Hulu for growth

Fox-Disney deal will be ‘fantastic’ for film industry: IMAX CEO

IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond discusses Disney’s acquisition of a significant portion of 21st Century Fox’s assets and explains how the merging of these major film companies could change the industry.

More than a decade ago, big Hollywood players created Hulu in a joint bid to fend off the threat from piracy on websites like YouTube.

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Now one of Hulu's owners, Walt Disney Co., is taking control of the subscription video-streaming service in the face of a newer rival: Netflix Inc.

Disney's deal to purchase a large portion of 21st Century Fox Inc.'s assets, announced Thursday, would double its 30% stake in Hulu. For the first time, a single company would control the streaming service's direction. Comcast Corp.'s NBCUniversal and Time Warner Inc. are the other joint owners, with 30% and 10% of Hulu, respectively.

With one majority owner, Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger said Thursday, managing Hulu will be "a little more clear, efficient and effective" than with equal partners.

The acquisition, he added, "will enable us to greatly accelerate Hulu...and become a more viable competitor to those already out there."

Disney believes Hulu fits into its larger strategy of selling content to consumers directly, instead of solely through distributors like cable companies. The entertainment giant already has plans to launch a family-friendly streaming service in 2019 that would include its feature films and children's TV content, including new Star Wars and Marvel series.

Disney would tailor Hulu to complement that service by focusing on more mature content, Mr. Iger said on a conference call. Hulu would be "a more adult-oriented offering," likely using content produced by the Twentieth Century Fox movie and TV studio and the FX cable network, as well as other sources, he said.

Together, the streaming services could form a two-pronged attack on Netflix. Consumers could subscribe to them individually or possibly as a combined package. Disney's ESPN is also launching a sports-streaming service next year, although the highest-profile games would remain exclusively on cable.

Building direct-to-consumer streaming services is becoming increasingly important to every media company as subscriptions to traditional pay-television bundles decline. Mr. Iger has essentially staked his company and legacy on his ability to make the shift, not only through the $52.4 billion Fox deal but by reorienting his film and television operations to focus on it.

Disney is ending a deal to provide movies to Netflix next year in favor of its own family-friendly streaming service, which will also feature original series and films. More original content for Hulu will be a priority as well if the acquisition successfully closes, people close to Disney said.

Hulu said in May 2016 that it had more than 12 million U.S. subscribers for its programming service, which offers a feed with commercials for $7.99 a month and a noncommercial feed for $11.99. It loses money, according to Disney regulatory filings.

Subscribers get access to episodes of current TV shows the day after they air on a host of networks including ABC, NBC and Fox. They can also watch original programming like "The Handmaid's Tale" and the Disney-produced "Marvel's Runaways," plus a large library of old shows, including classics like "Seinfeld."

Netflix had 62.3 million subscribers in the U.S. and 20.9 million overseas as of Sept. 30. Amazon.com Inc. doesn't disclose how many people subscribe to its Prime service, which includes video streaming.

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Hulu also recently launched a live-TV service to compete against traditional cable and satellite operators. It offers a package of cable channels for $40 a month, including Disney networks such as ESPN.

That streaming service could help Disney cushion the blow if traditional pay-TV providers start aggressively selling packages that don't include sports, Barclays analyst Kannan Venkateshwar said in a research note.

Disney would be able to "control its own fate domestically which is likely to change the narrative on ESPN," Mr. Venkateshwar wrote. ESPN's subscriber numbers have been declining as a result of cord-cutting

Because the Disney brand is premised on content and experiences that parents can share with their children, the company isn't likely to put shows on its family-oriented streaming service with dark, mature or violent material -- the sort that would appeal to fans of Netflix's "House of Cards" and "Bojack Horseman" or rival Amazon's "Transparent." But such content could play well on Hulu.

Hulu has been significantly increasing spending on original and acquired content, increasing its budget from $500 million in 2012 to $2.5 billion this year. Netflix has said it would spend $7 billion to $8 billion next year and Amazon is spending about $4.5 billion this year on content, said people close to that company.

Mr. Iger said Thursday that he wasn't sure whether Disney would accelerate Hulu's content investment upon taking control. "If we decide to increase spending," he noted, "we certainly have the [intellectual property]-creating capabilities far more than we did before this acquisition."

Hulu's content-licensing agreements with Disney, Fox and Comcast's NBCUniversal, which allow it to stream shows from those companies, expire in late 2019. Disney, upon completion of its deal with 21st Century Fox, would own the Fox-produced content but would potentially have to renegotiate with NBCUniversal if it wants to continue offering its content beyond 2019.

Write to Ben Fritz at ben.fritz@wsj.com and Joe Flint at joe.flint@wsj.com

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