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Would Disney, With Control of Hulu and Fox Studios, Have Formula for a Netflix Killer?

Disney may be about to swing a $60 billion deal for key pieces of 21st Century Fox that could give it serious firepower to take on Netflix, the No. 1 player in the subscription-streaming biz.

With Fox’s assets, Disney would own a controlling interest in Hulu, and would also acquire significant complementary Fox film franchises like “X-Men” (combining that part of the Marvel Universe under Disney). CNBC reported Tuesday that a Disney-Fox deal could be announced as early as next week, and would include the sale of Fox’s movie and TV studios, its 30% stake in Hulu, the FX and National Geographic cable networks group, regional sports networks, and other assets.

If Disney were able to consummate such a deal with Fox, it would make Disney’s challenge to Netflix “significantly more formidable,” said industry consultant Peter Csathy, founder of Creatv Media.

Disney would essentially own and operate three major Netflix competitors, according to Csathy: Hulu; the Disney-branded subscription VOD service planned for 2019; and the ESPN standalone sports-streaming service set to bow in early 2018. All of Disney’s global franchises — such as Disney princesses, Pixar, and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars — would be featured on the “family” SVOD package together with new assets from Fox.

Alternatively, Disney could decide to consolidate all of its entertainment properties into a super-charged Hulu. Noted Csathy: “All of those invaluable franchises would be nowhere to be found on Netflix.”

But there are a lot of uncertainties at this point, including whether a Disney-21st Century Fox agreement even happens. Even then, the competitive dynamics with Netflix would change only if Disney dramatically upped Hulu’s investment in content (around $2.5 billion for 2017) or, say, bundled Hulu with the upcoming ESPN over-the-top service, said VideoNuze analyst Will Richmond. “Absent these, things will stay roughly stable,” he said.

Disney CEO Bob Iger has already scaled back expectations for the Disney-branded entertainment SVOD service, which the company is eyeing for a 2019 launch. That will combine Disney, Pixar, and Lucasfilm titles — which roll off Netflix as Disney’s U.S. output deal expires — and other original content. But Iger told analysts on the company’s earnings call earlier this month that “our plan on the Disney side is to price this substantially below where Netflix is. That is in part reflective of the fact that it will have substantially less volume.”

If that current strategy for Disney’s SVOD holds, it will be “very compelling, especially for families,” Richmond said. But it won’t be a credible Netflix killer: “With Netflix so well established already, I see the new Disney service as an augment, with few people dropping Netflix to add Disney’s SVOD.”

Another caveat: Disney’s buying out Fox’s Hulu stake could prompt the U.S. government to block the move as anticompetitive or attach conditions on Disney’s control over Hulu. Comcast, under the conditions of its acquisition of NBCUniversal, has been prohibited from exercising management decisions regarding Hulu (a restriction that expires August 2018). But unlike Comcast — or AT&T, which is facing a DOJ lawsuit in its bid for Time Warner — Disney does not also own pay-TV or broadband services. And Disney could point to Netflix’s billions in content spending as evidence of healthy competition.

“Hulu would make much more sense under the direction of Disney” than Fox, BTIG Research analyst Rich Greenfield wrote in a research note last week, especially because if Fox divested its studios it “would be hard pressed to create content to keep Hulu vibrant.”

Meanwhile, recall Wall Street speculation several months ago that Disney could make a play for Netflix, to form the basis for Disney’s direct-to-consumer streaming video push. Some analysts believed the price tag for Netflix was too rich for Disney’s blood (Netflix’s market cap is now around $80 billion) — but the reported $60 billion value for a Disney-Fox deal is in the same ballpark.

Whichever way any of these scenarios play out, Netflix is closely watching to see what the Mouse House will do.

Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, threw some shade on Disney’s streaming dreams at Monday’s UBS Global Media and Communications Conference conference. “What Disney going direct-to-consumer means I don’t really know totally, and I’m not positive that they do either,” Sarandos said.

Sarandos said there’s a question of whether Disney will hold on to all of its content exclusively with the OTT play — or if it instead will be a “boutique-y” service aimed mainly at Disney superfans. “For sure, Disney’s been very good at being a destination company,” particularly with theme parks, Sarandos said. “But they’ve also been really effective third-party sellers.”

Pictured above: Disney’s Bob Iger (left), Netflix’s Reed Hastings

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