Comcast: We won’t lock up Hulu

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As Comcast acquired a controlling stake in NBC Universal, the cable giant said it has no plans to lock Hulu behind a paywall.

Hulu, which is jointly owned by NBC Universal, News Corp. and Disney, has been free and ad-supported since its March 2008 launch. Some News Corp. executives have talked about the possibility of a paid subscription service, either in place of or in addition to the existing free content, but no clear plan has ever been stated.

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Now, it seems that Hulu will remain a free site for the foreseeable future. Asked if Hulu would ever offer go premium, Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts said that is “certainly not in the cards.” He noted that TV Everywhere, a Web video initiative that Comcast and Time Warner are spearheading, complements Hulu’s free offerings. TV Everywhere will be available only to cable subscribers, and it’ll have programming that exceeds Hulu’s scattered selection.

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If you subscribe to cable, this is great news. It means that you can still watch Hulu on your computer without ever having to pay for the privilege. And someday, you’ll get lots of extra content through TV Everywhere.

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If you’re not a cable subscriber — perhaps deciding that between broadcast TV, Web video and Netflix, you’ve got enough entertainment for less money — little good will come of Comcast’s acquisition. Sure, Hulu will stay free, but you can forget about it expanding as an alternative to cable. I doubt that with this acquisition, Hulu will begin selling a la carte shows or episodes, because that would interfere with Comcast’s business model.

However, nothing’s cut and dry yet. For starters, the government still has to approve the deal. But more importantly, it’s News Corp., not NBC, that has talked about charging for Hulu services. This deal could make the whole Hulu joint ownership quite fragile. I hope this doesn’t turn into a situation where all consumers lose.

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