Could NBC Sale to Comcast Spell Trouble for Hulu?

From a digital media standpoint, Comcast’s deal to acquire NBC Universal from GE — announced this morning — is not trivial, but neither is it a bombshell. NBC Universal’s bigger digital properties consist of iVillage, Weather.com, and a stake in MSNBC.com. Comcast’s online holdings are more meager.

But the deal could have an impact on Hulu, the premium video joint venture whose most popular content has included major NBC shows like 30 Rock and SNL.

The reason? Comcast, along with rival ISP/cable provider Time Warner Cable and others, is heavily invested in a project to link subscribers’ cable accounts to online portals. If the experiment, dubbed “TV Everywhere” succeeds, it’ll be curtains for much free ad-supported TV and cable network shows on the Internet.

However, Comcast COO Steve Burke suggested during a conference call this morning that Hulu fans need not fear paying a premium for NBC content on the site. “We think that going forward, you’re going to continue to have free broadcast stuff on Hulu, and cable stuff on TV Everywhere,” AllThingsD quoted Burke as saying.

NBC has not been the most vocal advocate of subscription revenues. Among Hulu’s original partners, it is News Corp. that first called for a subscription model.

News Corp. Deputy Chairman Chase Carey told an audience in October that the site “needs to evolve to have a meaningful subscription model as part of its business,” according to a report in Broadcasting & Cable.

Among the big four networks, the loudest critic of Hulu has been CBS, the only major net without a stake in the site. Speaking with ClickZ last month, outbound CBS Interactive chief Quincy Smith left the door open to a deal with Hulu, but suggested “TV Everywhere” was preferable.

“If I can make it so that [a viewer] watches CSI on any screen at any time…and the advertiser is happy with the feedback, that’s the most elegant solution,” Smith said. “I can’t believe that Hulu would object. The question is, how do you get there?”

After Comcast takes control of NBCU, the network may join the chorus of those insisting the site become tied to cable subscriptions. That doesn’t necessarily mean the end of all free NBC content on Hulu.

This story has been updated with comments from Comcast COO Steve Burke.

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