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What’s going to happen to Hulu now that Disney basically owns it?

‘Hulu is a more adult-oriented product’

Disney To Buy 21st Century Fox's Entertainment Business Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Thanks to a historic deal between Disney and 21st Century Fox, Disney will essentially own three streaming services.

Disney is gearing up to launch a stand-alone streaming service for exclusive Disney titles, and that will exist alongside a stand-alone streaming service for ESPN. Now that Disney owns a majority stake in Hulu, that also means Disney basically owns Hulu. With three streaming services and an ever-expanding treasure trove of content, what does that mean for the company? How will Disney decide what goes to Hulu versus what remains on its stand-alone streaming service?

The fact is that we don’t know, but we can take a few educated guesses based on what Disney CEO Bob Iger has said today and in the past. During an investors call today, Iger addressed Hulu and noted that he sees it as an extension for more mature Fox series.

“There’s a lot of Fox intellectual property that fits extremely well into Disney-branded direct-to-consumer services,” Iger said on the call. “There’s a lot of product that we believe will be of great use to growing Hulu as it already is. Hulu is a more adult-oriented product [that will benefit from] Fox television production and FX.”

Hulu isn’t going anywhere and it’s probably not going to act as a consolidated streaming service for all of Disney’s ventures. Analysts have suggested that Disney could use Hulu as a one-for-all streaming platform, but Iger’s comments from the call suggest otherwise.

“Hulu obviously is a great opportunity to expand in the direct-to-consumer space," Iger said on the same call. "Owning roughly a third of it was great, but having control of it will enable us to greatly accelerate Hulu into that space and become an even more viable competitor to those that are already out there."

Hulu isn’t going to change anytime soon. It’s going to take some time before Disney’s effect on the streaming service comes into play, but it’s clear that Disney sees it as a place for more mature content, especially of the 20th Century Fox variety, to live. If Disney’s true intention is to turn Hulu into a more mature platform, that also means future Marvel movies that are a little more edgy, pushing the R-rated boundary, could also live on Hulu.

This is the biggest point of divide and conquer for Disney; the company views its stand-alone streaming service, which doesn’t have a name and is set to be released in 2019, as a family-friendly venture. Iger doesn’t plan to run content on the app that even approaches an R-rating, as he said in November, but isn’t “ruling out licensing third-party content provided the product fits within the Disney brand.”

Shows and movies produced under 20th Century Fox’s banner that are kid appropriate could live on Disney’s stand-alone streaming service. It’s a great way of expanding a library and offering more for potential subscribers. Tied into a price that Iger claims will be “substantially below Netflix,” and additional shows make the stand-alone service an easier sell.

Disney also isn’t interested in ridding the platform of award-winning series. The Handmaid’s Tale, easily Hulu’s most talked-about original show, isn’t suddenly going to end. With Disney acting as the majority owner of Hulu — and with its goal to create more adult-oriented, prestigious storytelling — The Handmaid’s Tale is very much part of that future.

What’s unclear about Hulu’s future is what happens to shows and films owned by Time Warner/AT&T and Comcast’s NBCUniversal. Time Warner owns a 10 percent stake in Hulu and Comcast owns 30 percent. There’s a chance that Disney could offer to buy both companies out, giving the company full control of the platform, but sources told Variety that both companies want to retain their ownership.

Iger addressed the situation in an interview with CNBC after the deal went through, saying, “we think it’s going to provide Comcast with a more interesting opportunity, as well, as we seek to grow Hulu in even more compelling ways.”

An “interesting opportunity” could signal that Iger is interested in pursuing buying out Comcast’s stake in Hulu, but it also means that Comcast’s NBCUniversal could follow in the footsteps of CBS’s All Access and set up a stand-alone streaming service for old, current and upcoming series.

It’s not totally out of the question. NBC does have an app and recently announced it was going to unlock all 200 episodes of Will and Grace so people could watch the series. Will and Grace is also available to stream on Hulu, but if Comcast decides it wants to stream the series exclusively, it could take the show off Hulu and charge subscribers via its home-grown app.

Iger said today that Comcast and Disney haven’t spoken about the future of Hulu and that’s a little worrying. The reality is we don’t know what Hulu is going to be or what it looks like. The company is losing money — more than $550 million between January and September of this year. Disney has to have a fool-proof plan to figure out how to make money off it, with 12 million Hulu subscribers and 250,000 subscribers who have invested in Hulu’s live TV cable package.

Does Disney have a plan? Also unclear. When Disney announced it was removing its content from Netflix and starting its own stand-alone streaming service, Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, famously said, “what Disney going direct-to-consumer means I don’t really know totally, and I’m not positive that they do either."

But Iger isn’t stupid; this is the man who oversaw the acquisition of Pixar in 2006, Marvel Studios in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012. Iger would have brought his ideas to the board before going through with the deal, which makes me believe that he’s got a pretty strong vision of what’s next for Hulu — and how that will be different than the vision he has for the stand-alone streaming service.

Only time will tell to see what Hulu turns into, but I’m very interested to see what happens in the coming months and years.

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