Can Hulu really go public?
Yes, say sources talking to The New York Times, who imagine the video site launching an IPO "as soon as this fall."
And it's not the first time we've heard the idea: some of Hulu's network owners have been murmuring privately about an IPO for a while. My colleague Kara Swisher even got Hulu CEO Jason Kilar to acknowledge the possibility in an interview last month.
OK. But really?
For argument's sake, let's take Hulu executives at their word. They say the site will turn a profit on revenue of more than $200 million this year--even though the majority of its revenue for its big shows goes back to its network owners.
Even with those numbers, a Hulu IPO faces a fundamental challenge: convincing investors that its three network co-owners are committed to making the thing a success.
The Times' sources float a $2 billion valuation for Hulu. And that ought to be all the motivation that its network owners--GE's NBC, Disney's ABC, and News Corp.'s Fox-- and co-owner Providence Equity should need.
But Hulu's primary business model--streaming TV shows on the Web, for free, while competing with the network's own sites, which do the same thing--seems a lot more problematic now than it did back in 2007. At the time, the networks were primarily concerned with creating a credible competitor to Apple's iTunes and Google's YouTube.
Now Hulu's owners, who are primarily focused on wringing extra dollars out of the cable business, are consistently sending mixed signals about what they want to do with the site.
For instance: this spring, ABC launched its own free iPad app, which competes with Hulu's $9.99/month paid service. This month, News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch was asked about Hulu during his quarterly earnings call, and he declined to say much at all. Meanwhile NBC is slated to be a unit of Comcast, which has real problems with Hulu (though I think the cable guys will be hands off the JV for the near future).
Of course, there's a circular logic to this. If Hulu's network owners can really convince Wall Street to assign a eye-popping value for their site, then Hulu's network owners have a reason to stick around. And maybe this show has a happy ending, after all. I'll be happy to watch, either way.