Hulu owners to buy out stakeholder

Private equity firm eyes profitable exit

The withdrawal of one of Hulu’s stakeholders is bound to prompt a fresh round of speculation over its perpetually complicated future.

Providence Equity Partners has a handshake deal to sell its 10% stake in the streaming service to the other three owners, News Corp., Comcast and Disney, according to sources. News of the sale was first reported by Bloomberg.

Providence’s stake could be worth $200 million, sources say, which would peg Hulu’s total value at $2 billion. Selling for $200 million would represent a doubling of Providence’s initial investment.

A private-equity group’s quick exit after pocketing a tidy profit is typically just ordinary news, but Hulu’s brief history has been so tumultuous that any fluctuation in ownership merits attention.

News Corp., NBCUniversal and Providence launched Hulu in 2007. Disney took a stake in the streaming video service two years later. The four companies nearly sold Hulu last year but pulled it off the market after drawing interest from a range of companies from Microsoft to Yahoo. An IPO was also briefly considered but never pursued to fruition.

Hulu’s well-regarded CEO Jason Kilar publicly jousted with the owners last year as well, igniting speculation he could exit.

Unclear is how Comcast would participate in buying Providence’sstake given the hands-off policy it’s had to adopt regarding Hulu, a condition the FCC imposed on the conglom to clear its acquisition of NBCUniversal.

Sources said it’s also unclear whether Providence’s exit is a result of the put option it has always had in place with the other buyers.

Given that Providence is a private-equity company, the selloff isn’t surprising. However, at one point the company was said to have been interested in pulling a reversal of what it ultimately chose to do: Buying out the ownership stakes of the other companies and running Hulu on its own.

That said, though joint ventures are never smoothly executed in the entertainment business, Providence has never been seen as a squeaky wheel in the crowded Hulu boardroom.

Providence made news earlier this week by taking a minority stake in the Chernin Group. Peter Chernin, who played a founding role in the formation of Hulu while still at News Corp., is joining Providence’s board of directors as part of the transaction, which pumped $200 million into Chernin Group.

While the timing and monetary value is coincidental, sources suggested the two occurrences were not connected.

The three remaining companies provide Hulu with what analysts have assessed as its greatest asset: rights to next-day access of primetime programming from broadcast networks ABC, NBC and Fox. But none of those deals are understood to be long term, which has always been a knock on Hulu.

The fourth of the Big Four nets, CBS, has never thrown its lot with the others. The departure of Providence raises the question of whether the remaining owners will look to add to their ranks.

CBS Corp. isn’t entirely Hulu-phobic. The conglom struck a deal last year to steer next-day programming from CW, which it owns jointly with Warner Bros., to Hulu Plus.