Disney CEO Bob Iger Confirms Talks With Comcast Over Hulu Stake Sale

Randy Freer Hulu - H - 2018

The executive says that Comcast-owned NBCUniversal would likely still continue to license programming to Hulu.

Disney has held talks with Comcast about buying out the telecom giant's stake in Hulu, Bob Iger revealed Wednesday.

The Disney CEO, speaking on the company's first-quarter earnings call with investors, confirmed that there "has been dialogue with Comcast about them possibly divesting their stake." It's unclear how advanced these negotiations are or what a potential timeline would be for a Comcast sale of its Hulu stake. 

Comcast, through entertainment division NBCUniversal, currently owns 30 percent of Hulu. Disney, meanwhile, became the streamer's majority owner in February when it acquired 21st Century Fox's piece of the business, giving it a 60 percent stake. 

Hulu has had a complex corporate history since its inception. It launched in 2008 as a joint venture of Fox predecessor News Corp. and NBC Universal and served as a streaming hub for free episodes of TV and video clips. Disney invested in the venture a year later. The three companies considered selling Hulu in 2013, but ultimately agreed to double down on their commitment to the service. In 2016, Time Warner (now WarnerMedia) bought into the business as a 10 percent minority owner.

In the years since, the streamer has been on a growth spurt, increasing the size of its subscriber base to 26.8 million paid members and spending on original shows including breakout The Handmaid's Tale and recent comedies Ramy, Shrill and Pen15. The streamer, which has evolved to offer an ad-free service and a live TV bundle, has also built up its next-day TV lineup and its library of TV shows and films. 

Disney's acquisition of the Fox assets put an end to Hulu's delicately balanced ownership structure. But while Disney became the majority owner, Comcast — via its earlier acquisition of NBCUniversal — has maintained some leverage over decisions that would impact the business. 

On April 15, WarnerMedia sold back its stake in Hulu in a deal that valued the streamer at $14 billion. Disney revealed Wednesday that it funded the deal "via a loan" to Hulu. NBCU has 90 days from the date of the transaction in which it can elect to contribute its proportionate share (or 30 percent) toward the purchase price of the Hulu stake. That would mean Disney would become the 67 percent owner in Hulu and Comcast would become a 33 percent owner. If NBCU does not participate in the purchase of WarnerMedia's stake, Disney would up its ownership to 70 percent. 

Amid this decision-making period, Iger's comments reveal that Disney has talked to Comcast about selling its stake and divesting from Hulu entirely. That would mean that NBCU would give up the board seats that it reacquired in September (after a period in which it could not be an active owner of Hulu following its sale to Comcast). Currently, NBCU executives Jeff Shell, Linda Yaccarino and Matt Bond serve as Hulu directors. 

NBCU also licenses a number of its shows to Hulu for both on-demand and next-day TV viewing. Current shows like Saturday Night Live and The Good Place stream on Hulu, in addition to library programming including 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation. Although NBCU is developing its own standa-lone streaming service, Iger suggested that it would likely continue to license its programming to Hulu, even if it sold its stake in the business. Iger noted on the call, "If that were to occur, there probably would be some ongoing relationship" related to programming.

A Hulu spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. An NBCU spokeswoman declined to comment. CNBC previously reported on the talks between Disney and Comcast.