LOS ANGELES — Like Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown just when he’s about to kick it, the owners of Hulu once again have pulled the plug on selling the popular online site.
Those lying flat on their back include satellite broadcaster DirecTV, cable operator Time Warner Cable and the Chernin Group, which was partnering with AT&T on a bid.
This is the second time in less than two years that Walt Disney Co. and 21st Century Fox have gone through an elaborate auction process to sell the site only to get cold feet.
Hulu’s third owner — Comcast’s NBCUniversal — is a silent partner in the site. That was one of the conditions the government put on Comcast in return for granting approval of its deal to take control of NBCUniversal.
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Instead of selling, the three companies said they would invest $750 million in Hulu. (Even though Comcast has no say in the running of Hulu, it has to pony up $250 million.)
So why did the owners back out this time?
According to one of the potential suitors, even though Disney and 21st Century Fox are not on the same page about a long-term strategy for Hulu, they also can’t bring themselves to part with it.
Neither wants to be the Boston Red Sox trading Babe Ruth, or the Pittsburgh Steelers letting Johnny Unitas go.
Those left at the altar are not happy about the change of heart.
“It’s hard enough for one company to make a decision, with two it is impossible,” said an executive at one of the companies that had been bidding for Hulu.
DirecTV, the most aggressive of the bidders, was hoping Hulu could give it a new platform to woo subscribers.
The mood Friday at the satellite broadcaster was very dark, after executives had spent weeks involved in the bidding process.
If nothing else, the Hulu saga has shown the challenges that come from having multiple owners with different agendas.
It may only get worse in 2018, which is when the government’s restraints come off Comcast and it too can have a role in the running of Hulu.