Comcast, the largest cable television operator in America, is reportedly in talks with General Electric, which owns 80% of NBC Universal, regarding a deal to spin the studio and network group out as a jointly owned company. What will this mean for Hulu, the online video venture co-founded by NBC, and TV Everywhere, the concept of online video as promoted by Comcast and TimeWarner?
Television industry executives are conflicted by the conundrum of how to allow viewers to watch programmes online without cannibalising subscription revenues, while cable companies are concerned not to be relegated to the role of a utility broadband service provider.
Hulu has 40 million online viewers, attracted by its ease of use and advertiser supported programming. Comcast has 24 million paying subscribers, but has so far failed to make much of an impression with its own online service, Fancast.
Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts has been critical of the Hulu model of providing shows free online, for which pay-television operators pay billions of dollars. Together with TimeWarner, Comcast has advocated a system of authentication they call TV Everywhere, which would allow users to watch programmes online, providing that they were a subscriber. Then there is the prospect of charging extra for premium programming.
For the cable company, a controlling stake in NBC Universal would provide an opportunity to get more involved in programming and have more of a say in how it is distributed online.
There have been many attempts to marry programming and distribution to create vertical integration. Many have resulted in a disastrous conflict of cultures and ended in eventual separation. Meanwhile, new competitors are eroding the margins of the business of the major players.