The pay-TV biz is going to get its hands on Hulu.

With Guggenheim Digital Media and KKR gone from the hunt for Hulu, as CNBC reported Tuesday, that leaves three bidders, all with ties to established distributors: satcaster DirecTV, telco AT&T (together with the Chernin Group), and in a less likely scenario, Time Warner Cable may come in as part owner. A source close to the talks confirmed Guggenheim-KKR were informed their bid was too low and was no longer being considered.

Walt Disney Co., 21st Century Fox and Comcast’s NBCUniversal are in the final phase of selling off the Internet TV baby they raised out of necessity, as a vehicle to collectively monetize TV programming online.

A pay-TV provider could choose to shut down the free, ad-supported side of the business and refashion Hulu as a “TV Everywhere” walled garden, as a way to defend their existing businesses from online competition. See ya, Hulu-as-we-knew-it.

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But consider this future scenario.

Hulu, once its strategic direction is no longer dictated by three of the Big Four broadcast nets, would have more latitude to develop new services. Hulu wouldn’t need to be primarily engineered to maximize revenue for post-broadcast windows — instead, it could create an array of subscription and ad-supported offerings, including a service with a lineup of TV shows and movies to give Netflix a run for its money.

Hulu also could have a bigger appetite (and budget) for original programming, wooing content producers away from YouTube and other ad-supported sites.

Could a new owner try to really shake things up and introduce an over-the-top TV service, akin to the one Intel is trying to hammer together? It’s doubtful. Hulu itself sketched out a business plan around that two years ago, and concluded the costs to reinvent the wheel outweighed any benefits.

In the hands of AT&T or DirecTV, Hulu would be geared to complement current pay TV services rather than cannibalize them. A pay-TV provider would want to use Hulu to upsell subscribers — and sell nonsubscribers — a different kind of video service… such as, say, what Netflix offers. Or something better, or different.

Now, what about the Hulu-as-authentication-portal idea? It would be strange for a buyer to essentially strip Hulu for technology parts. Hulu could dovetail with TV Everywhere extensions of DirecTV, AT&T or TW Cable but if that’s all it became it would seem to be a wasted asset.

To skeptics, post-sale Hulu will become a shell of its former self — with more restricted rights to the high-value primetime TV shows from ABC, NBC and Fox that are the biggest reasons more than 24 million visitors come to the site each month.

True, to grow Hulu, a new owner would have plenty of heavy lifting ahead of it to land new content deals — and would pay top dollar for those rights. It’s not clear what the exact plans are of the prospective owners. But with the right moves, they could conceivably bulk up Hulu into an even bigger predator in the online video ocean.