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Disney could take full control of Hulu, but that doesn’t mean subscribers’ favorite shows disappear

Disney CEO Bob Iger comments on Hulu’s future

Disney currently owns about 70 percent of Hulu, but Disney CEO Bob Iger confirmed today that preliminary conversations with Comcast to purchase the remaining roughly 30 percent are underway. On the business side of things, that means Disney could finally expand Hulu into international territory without input from Comcast. Content wise, there are obvious questions about what Disney owning 100 percent of Hulu means for the future of content owned by WarnerMedia (AT&T) and NBCUniversal (Comcast) on the platform.

Iger couldn’t get into specifics, but based on the few answers he did give, there’s a good chance most of subscribers’ favorite shows will still be available on Hulu. Iger told investors that when WarnerMedia, owned by AT&T, sold its 10 percent stake in Hulu to Disney, the deal came with specific terms regarding licensed content and channels for Hulu’s live TV service. He further explained, part of that deal meant “there was some ongoing relationship tied to their product including their channels.” It could be the same case with Comcast if the company were to sell its stake.

“You can expect that if that were to occur there would probably be some ongoing relationship when it comes to programming,” Iger said, adding, “I’m not going to get more specific than that.”

Breaking down rights ownership of licensed TV series and movies on streaming platforms like Hulu or Netflix can get incredibly confusing very quickly. It’s also, however, one of the most important conversations when discussing streaming culture. People don’t typically care about which company owns Hulu — but they certainly want to know if they can continue watching Seinfeld or Futurama.

The best example is the Friends conundrum. Friends started as an NBC show, but its digital rights are actually owned by WarnerMedia. WarnerMedia, now owned by AT&T, licenses Friends to Netflix for $100 million. Since the show is owned by WarnerMedia, however, AT&T only gave Netflix the series through the end of 2019. It was a move many reporters and experts assumed would give AT&T the ability to stream Friends on its upcoming direct-to-consumer streaming service in 2020. So why would Netflix spend $100 million on Friends for only one year? As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff pointed out, the “evidence we have suggests there’s still a lot of viewing of old favorites” on Netflix. If the majority of a subscriber base is spending hours watching Friends, being the exclusive place for people to find the show is a smart business decision. It lets subscribers come to Netflix to watch Friends, and stay for other original Netflix programming.

Iger is treating Hulu similarly. He wants to use licensed programming as a way to satiate Hulu subscribers’ appetite (as seen in the numbers linked above), while developing more original series. The CEO told investors, “We’re bullish about Hulu for a number of reasons, and we see it as the best consumer television product out there.”

Even Hulu suggested that its exclusive licensed programming is part of the reason it saw a growth in subscribers. Data published in April 2018 found that 97 percent of streams by Hulu subscribers were licensed series, with 89 percent of Hulu subscribers watching licensed programming first before viewing originals. The strategy is to continue investing in Hulu and develop more original content, Iger said, but also use legacy content from Fox, Disney, WarnerMedia, and now possibly even NBCUniversal to attract and maintain subscribers.

“We intend to fully leverage the brand in both traditional and new businesses,” Iger previously said. “There’s ample opportunity for FX to produce more programming, especially for Hulu as we look to expand the streamer.”

Disney executives have big plans for Hulu. It’s the perfect counterpart to Disney+, the company’s upcoming streaming service that will remain family friendly. It’s obvious Disney wants to take full control of Hulu so it can do more with the service without having to gather input from Comcast, as Iger said in today’s call. It’s also abundantly plain that Disney is working with companies like Comcast and WarnerMedia to ensure that their content is still on Hulu, even if they — as corporate entities — are not.

“With Comcast basically a 33 percent owner, any major decision when it comes to extension would have to do it with their co-operation,” Iger said. “We both share a bullish outlook about Hulu, but we can’t do it on our own.”

None of this is set in stone. AT&T is launching its own streaming service, and so is NBCUniversal. It’s unclear what the deals between Disney and both companies look like regarding licensed content remaining on the platform post-sale, too. The only concerns Iger spoke to investors about was whether Disney would lose an incredible amount of licensed content following purchases of WarnerMedia and Comcast’s stakes, if those were to happen. While he couldn’t give specifics, the fact that Iger addressed ongoing relationships regarding live channels and content seems to confirm that he’s thinking about keeping shows like Seinfeld on the platform, too.