Peter Kafka

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Does the FCC Want to Kill Hulu?

One of Washington’s proposed conditions on the Comcast-NBC U deal will force the merged company to offer NBC’s shows to any Web competitor.

So what does that mean for Hulu, which has already locked up exclusive rights to NBC’s Web video?

A couple of possible answers: Perhaps Federal Communications Commission head Julius Genachowski is trying to put a fork in Hulu. Or maybe the conditions he wants to place on the merger are so toothless that they don’t really count as conditions at all.

Background: Each of Hulu’s three partners/owners–GE’s NBC, News Corp.’s Fox and Disney’s ABC–has agreed to mutual exclusivity pacts. If you want to watch one of their shows for free online, you can see them on the networks’ own sites, or via Hulu–either on the main site itself, or via other sites that are taking Hulu’s feed. (News Corp. also owns this Web site.)

But one of the primary conditions Genachowski wants to place on FCC approval for the Comcast-NBC deal is that Web competitors will get access to NBC’s shows, according to the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Here’s the WSJ:

Comcast would be required to offer NBC Universal programming to any online video provider that has reached a similar deal for content with some of NBC’s competitors, such as Walt Disney Co. or Fox Television, a division of News Corp.

That’s a bit vague, so we won’t really know what Genachowski intends until he goes public with his proposed rules. But there are basically two ways to interpret what the Journal is reporting here. Either:

  • The FCC wants to make sure that NBC doesn’t prevent Hulu from syndicating its content out to third-party sites, as it’s already doing with Yahoo, AOL and…Comcast. If that’s all Genachowski wants, that’s no big deal, and not really  a restriction at all. Because Hulu’s business plan is predicated on wide distribution. Or….
  • The FCC is telling NBC that it has to offer its shows directly to other Web sites. That’s potentially devastating news for Hulu. If, say, Yahoo can license “The Office” directly from NBC, it may not want to bother cutting a deal with the joint venture site. And to be clear: The overwhelming majority of Hulu’s traffic comes from people watching shows from its big three partners.

So which is it? The FCC held a farcical press conference yesterday where it wouldn’t answer any specific questions about the deal. But it would be nice if it could clear this one up soon.