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Why It Could Get Harder to Watch Your Favorite Shows on Hulu

Netflix says Hulu is a "cord-cutter's dream." Its TV network owners may be trying to put an end to that.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Could Time Warner buy a piece of Hulu? Maybe. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week , the video site would like Time Warner to give it cash and content in exchange for equity.

But people I’ve talked to say that discussion, which began last month, hasn’t gone very far so far.

A more important question: Whether or not Time Warner invests in Hulu, is there a new plan for Hulu?

Ever since Hulu launched in 2008, its main appeal has been that it was a place to see TV shows that recently aired. But now TV networks are starting to rethink the idea of putting their recent shows on other people’s services.

Most of that rethinking has been spurred by Netflix, which has used the networks’ reruns to help amass 42 million U.S. subscribers. But just because some of the TV networks own Hulu — it’s a joint venture of 21st Century Fox, Disney and Comcast’s NBCUniversal — doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll keep selling their recent reruns to Hulu, which now has around 10 million paying subscribers.

“Hulu is even more of a cord cutter’s dream than Netflix, because it’s got the new network shows the day after,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said during the company’s earnings call last month. And it may be that at least one of Hulu’s co-owners agrees.

During his most recent earnings call, 21st Century Fox CEO James Murdoch was asked repeatedly about his approach to video licensing in general and Hulu in particular, with analysts suggesting that Hulu was cannibalizing his core TV business. His response, repeatedly, was that things were going to change, somehow. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a steady state today,” Murdoch said.

Here’s a longer quote from Murdoch about Fox’s approach to Hulu: “Look, I think our commitment to Hulu is self-evident. We’ve invested a lot in it. We continue to license to it, where it makes the most sense for our creative partners and us to do so. But also, we want to grow our app distribution, as well. And I think we’re seeking to license rights to distributors of all kinds, if it’s on the right terms.”

Read between the lines and you can imagine a couple of different scenarios that Murdoch may be thinking about for Hulu: One is that Fox continues to provide its next-day reruns to the site, but only to customers who are already subscribing to pay TV somewhere else. In industry terms, that would make Hulu an “authentication” play for its “TV Everywhere” strategy. Another option, which isn’t mutually exclusive: Fox sells its reruns to Hulu, but only long after they’ve appeared on Fox’s own channels and apps.

Either one of those approaches would be a big change for Hulu, which has had the same strategy, more or less, for years, even as its owners have changed their minds about keeping or selling the site. Those changes would also make the site much more interesting for Time Warner, which has already been explicit about the fact that it doesn’t want its shows appearing on rival subscription services until several years after they aired.

More to the point: It’s hard to imagine any scenario where Time Warner invests in Hulu without a significant change in the way it operates. So if Time Warner does put money into Hulu, it’s likely going to be a very different kind of Hulu from the one that exists today.

Bonus points for Code/Media attendees: We’ll ask Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins about this question — and many others — at our event next Feb. 17 and 18 in Laguna Niguel, Calif. And for those of you haven’t signed up yet: We’ve still got room for you. Register here and we’ll see you there.

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