Wall Street lukewarm to Hulu IPO plans

Raising capital could make website more competitive

NEW YORK -- News that Hulu is talking to investment banks about an IPO that could value it at more than $2 billion is a mouth-watering prospect for bankers. After all, the last huge, true Hollywood IPO was that of DreamWorks Animation in 2004.

But the news of a possible Hulu IPO, first reported by the New York Times, was met with caution by others on Wall Street.

"Hulu is of interest because it's perceived as being in the last remaining growth sector" of online video, investor and former entertainment industry analyst Hal Vogel said. He added, though, that the appetite for it likely will be only "decent" and "depends on pricing."

An IPO comes amid signs of improvement in the IPO market in the first half of 2010 following 2008, the worst IPO year on record, and 2009, the second- weakest since the mid-70s.

Plus, it comes amid a volatile stock market and recurring investor fears of a double-dip recession, or a return to recession after a short period of growth.

So why would Hulu, a joint venture of NBC Universal, News Corp., Disney and private equity firm Providence, consider an IPO?

Raising capital could make it more competitive as the online video space has started requiring big investments. Case in point: Netflix's recent $1 billion a year content deal with premium channel provider Epix.

It's also a possible exit strategy for PE owner Providence and maybe one or the other entertainment giant behind it.

NBC Uni, which Comcast is planning to acquire, could reduce its stake in an IPO -- maybe even give it up completely, if regulators decide Comcast would have too much market power in the burgeoning online video space.

One industry insider also mentioned previous reports of dissension over the value of the owners' respective stakes in Hulu.

With key content deals with its owners up next summer, according to the Wall Street Journal, making Hulu a more separate entity could help it reach deals that content giants can live with while avoiding family squabbles.

Few Street folks on Monday wanted to discuss the possible going-public deal as various Wall Street firms will hope to play a fee-paying role in it.

Privately though, some observers wondered how a $2 billion valuation would be received given that Hulu doesn't have a fully developed business model.

It has only just begun the process of adding a $9.99 per month Hulu Plus subscription service to its advertising business.

That said, Hulu seems to have made progress on the financial front in addition to gaining strong traffic.

CEO Jason Kilar has said that Hulu brought in $100 million in revenue last year and that Hulu is "net income positive" and has already passed the $100 million revenue plateau in 2010.

Hulu could do well because "many consumers know Hulu now" and because it is seen as a game changer for its entertainment conglomerate owners, he said.

Tom Taulli, author of "Investing in IPOs," says the offering will get traction because it will be surrounded by hype, in no small part generated by the big media companies that own Hulu.

And $2 billion isn't out of the question when one considers YouTube. "Google paid $1.6 billion for YouTube, and they haven't written that asset down," Taulli said, although acknowledging that $2 billion seems to be on the high side.

Meanwhile, Vogel said he was "as bearish as ever and not at all interested in actually buying the IPO shares."

His reasoning: With credit problems resurfacing and concerns about the entertainment industry's future when it comes to ad revenue, DVD sales and piracy, "all the media and entertainment stocks will be a lot lower in a year or two."

Plus, "the legacy business models are under attack or broken for good" in the entertainment space, Vogel said. "The problem is that there is no viable replacement model yet proven."
"The IPO market is still tentative," Miller Tabak analyst David Joyce added. "It depends on the story, business model and name recognition in this nervous market."

Joyce also cautioned that Hulu's new business model is "just emerging."

Last month, 3D movie technology firm RealD -- another company in one of the rare hot pockets of the sector -- went public and had a good start. The stock popped 22% above its $16 pricing to close its first day at $19.51, but Monday it finished at $18.26.

A couple of other media and entertainment firms also have recently stated interest in an IPO.
Internet media firm Demand Media this month filed a registration statement for such a move, and Relativity Media boss Ryan Kavanaugh last month told Bloomberg that a market debut is an option for him. "Down the road, we'll be looking at several options, one of which could be a public offering," he said without providing a possible timetable.

The flirtation with IPOs may be because of a recovery, albeit a slow one, in the new issues market. According to the National Venture Capital Assn., 2008 and 2009 were the worst years for IPOs since 1975. Data from the group and Thomson Reuters shows that 86 IPOs raised $10.3 billion in 2007. That was followed by $460 million from six market debuts in 2008, the worst year on record, and $1.9 billion from 13 start-ups in 2009.

But during the first six months of 2010, the number of IPOs and overall deal volume are up.

Still, numerous companies have canceled their IPO plans this year. And in line with that, most recent talk of IPOs in the broader media/entertainment space has remained just that -- talk.

Amid a volatile stock market and lack of investor enthusiasm, production house the Film Department, Al Gore's Current TV and visual effects and animation company Digital Domain have dumped planned IPOs the past couple of years.

Before RealD, in-movie theater ad firm National CineMedia had a solid IPO in 2007, but the last major true Hollywood IPO that people talk about was that of DreamWorks Animation in 2004, when the IPO market was red hot.

DWA shares priced at a higher-than-expected $28 and soared 38% on their first day, closing at $38.75. In early May, the stock traded around that level but has since lost ground, finishing Monday at $31.27.

Paul Bond contributed to this report from Los Angeles.
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