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Here’s Who Should Own Hulu

Hint: The company best suited to buy in is the one Jason Kilar wouldn’t have wanted

At some point in the coming weeks, the Hulu board of directors will meet in order to sift through at least seven acquisition bids. It will undoubtedly be a difficult decision considering the complexity of the business.

But there’s one simple truth that shouldn’t get lost in the deliberation: Talk all you want about Hulu’s technology, talent and brand, but the venture’s bread and butter are its content deals with the broadcasters whose parent companies also own it.

The Chernin Group, DirecTV, Guggenheim Digital Media, KKR & Co., Time Warner Cable, Yahoo and the combination of Silver Lake Management and WME present a pretty diverse field of potential buyers. But my money is on TW Cable, which is not looking to buy Hulu outright but to come in as a fourth equity stakeholder alongside existing owners Walt Disney Co., News Corp. and NBCUniversal.

That may strike some as a sad turn of events for Hulu, which original CEO Jason Kilar bred to be a vehicle of industry disruption — not a pay-TV pawn.

But this marriage makes a lot of sense from both sides. Hulu’s awesome cross-platform environment may be just what the doctor ordered to cure the cable world’s atrociously executed TV Everywhere strategy. And the incredibly lucrative affiliate deals that leading distributors have with content companies will ensure the next-day access to primetime programming that is Hulu’s lifeblood stays in place.

And herein lies the painful truth. Techies love to romanticize Hulu as some kind of Daniel in the lion’s den of showbiz, a noble Silicon Valley brainchild being slowly suffocated in the crib of Hollywood. If only these Philistines with the stupidity to try to manage Hulu as a joint venture could get out of their own way, the conventional wisdom goes, this technological marvel could cure cancer between commercial breaks of “Family Guy.”

But it’s “Family Guy” that made Hulu, not whatever UX innovation is being touted, like its Ad Swap technology. The latter is plenty nifty, but Hulu is a Ferrari with no gas unless premium content comes along for the ride.

Next-day access to primetime programming is its edge over everyone else in the streaming video business. TW Cable has the leverage to keep that on the table as long as possible.

The tragedy of Hulu may be that Hulu Plus squandered a window of opportunity to compete as a standalone global subscription VOD service, a category that Netflix is dominating and in which Amazon Prime/Lovefilm could very well shape up to be a solid No. 2. Racking up 4 million subscribers was an accomplishment, but imagine how much bigger that number could have been had it the ability to stomp the accelerator — real investment, global expansion, more original programming — during a time it otherwise spent spinning in circles.

Keep in mind it is entirely possible, though not probable, that Hulu’s owners will opt to keep the company to itself, just as they called off an earlier sale effort in 2011. Or News Corp. could elect to sell its half to the others or vice versa.

Private equity ownership also feels like the wrong choice. Whether it’s KKR or Guggenheim, we know the m.o.: Manage for the short term, just long enough to exit with a healthy return. Hulu already went down this road with Providence Equity Partners, the firm that was one of its original investors. They came and went, and Hulu doesn’t have much to show for that.

But that doesn’t feel likely this time around.

Kilar seemed intent on succeeding so wildly that his corporate parents would be forced to adapt to Hulu rather than the other way around. But that was probably a quixotic quest, one he would not have been able to see through even if he stuck around.

That window of opportunity may be closed now, but there’s another door open to be the face of TV Everywhere. It’s not the gig Kilar wanted for Hulu, but it’s not a bad consolation prize, either.

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