Disney’s Hulu play could turn out to be like Facebook buying Instagram

  • Disney's reportedly considering buying assets from 21st Century Fox, including its stake in streaming video service Hulu.
  • Owning a majority stake in Hulu prepares Disney perfectly to be one of the big players in over-the-top video.
  • It's equivalent to Facebook buying Instagram to help it stay atop the App Store charts.
Bob Iger (R), CEO of Walt Disney Co. and Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO of News Corp.
Getty Images
Bob Iger (R), CEO of Walt Disney Co. and Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO of News Corp.

(Affiliates controlled by EricJackson have long positions in DIS, AAPL and NFLX)

Monday's jolting news broken by CNBC's David Faber that Disney had held discussions with 21st Century Fox about buying up many of Fox's most interesting cable and movie assets is still reverberating around the media world.

Laura Martin of Needham said on CNBC after the news broke that the deal is a "dream come true" for Disney. And she's right. If it happens, Disney would getthe valuable TV and film production business and IP (including Avatar, X Men and Ice Age), the FX and Nat Geo cable channels, very interesting international assets, and likely Fox's stake in Vice Media. All of these assets -- as well as FX executive John Landgraf -- would be extremely helpful to Disney in filling out content for its over-the-top digital entertainment offering planned for 2019.

The report also says Disney is seeking to get Fox's stake in Hulu. To me, this is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the possible deal from a Disney perspective. It also hasn't gotten much attention yet.

The forgotten player in over-the-top video

Disney is already a 30% owner of Hulu. If it got Fox's 30% stake, it would move to a 60% control owner, along with Comcast at 30% and Time Warner at 10%.

Such a move would allow Disney to consolidate Hulu's financial results.

Hulu hasn't gotten nearly as much attention as Netflix over the past few years. The critical acclaim and Emmys for The Handmaid's Tale put it in the spotlight in recent months, but it's still not discussed on the same level as Amazon's Prime Video, Netflix, Apple and other potential over-the-top (OTT) video entrants.

Why not?

Hulu is expected to reach 32 million viewers later this year. That's less than Netflix's 128 million and Amazon's 85 million, but it is still formidable and ahead of everyone else who wants to launch an OTT network.

Consider this: Ben Swinburne of Morgan Stanley recently predicted that Disney's planned entertainment OTT service, set to launch in 2019, could achieve 30 million subs by 2028.

Hulu's at that level today.

Hulu was founded in March 2007. Achieving scale takes time. Everyone who thinks it's a great idea to launch an OTT channel today might have a tough 10 years ahead of them.

How many "must have" OTT channels will each of us subscribe to in the future? Netflix, Apple (whenever they launch something), Amazon, Hulu and Disney all seem like likely choices. How many others?

Look at the app economy for comparison. On the top of the App Store charts today, it's basically Facebook (with Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp), Google and Snapchat. It seems like there also be a finite choice of OTT channels as well.

Becoming a majority owner of Hulu today might end up like being the majority owner of Instagram in 2014.

A simpler corporate structure

There's another attractive reason for Disney to want to gain majority control of Hulu. As I argued in June here, Hulu would likely grow faster with a simpler corporate structure and a majority owner. For example, the clear leadership could help them push Hulu much more aggressively internationally, as well as streamline content decisions.

It would also help to clear up the identity of Hulu versus a yet-to-launch Disney Entertainment OTT channel. Hulu could skew more adult with Handmaid's Tale, Family Guy, Simpsons, Fox films and FX-type content (under John Landgraf perhaps). Disney could keep Lucasfilm, Pixar, Marvel, and other Disney Channel type content.

Also, as Hulu would still be partly owned by Comcast and Time Warner, it could continue to shine a spotlight on other interesting content beyond Disney.

Hulu doesn't have to catch Netflix to be a success. If it stays in the Top 5 of OTT channels in the future, the way Instagram has stayed in the Top 5 on the App Store since Facebook bought it, it would be a home run for Disney.

Commentary by Eric Jackson, sign up for Eric's monthly Tech & Media Email. You can follow Eric on Twitter @ericjackson .

Disclosure: Comcast, which owns CNBC parent NBCUniversal, is a co-owner of Hulu.

WATCH: Traditional antitrust issues likely wouldn't apply to Disney-Fox deal

Correction: An earlier version of this story misreported Hulu viewer estimates as subscriber estimates.