Launch of ‘International Hulu’ Raises Questions for Disney Distribution

The international version of Hulu is here, and it’s prompting Disney’s global buyers to think long and hard about how much of the media giant’s licensed content they can live without.

Years after the international industry first began speculating about a global Hulu, Disney has unveiled Star, the ambitious sixth tile on streamer Disney Plus, which will be available to subscribers outside the U.S. beginning Feb. 23.

To date, international customers have been forced to hunt all over for catalog television titles such as “Desperate Housewives,” “24” and “Lost.” All this content will now be on one platform, alongside ABC Studios shows like “Big Sky” and “Love Victor” and hot new FX offerings such as “Only Murders in the Building” and “The Old Man.”

But where does that leave Disney’s loyal international channel and platform buyers, which previously would have secured these shows for their own outlets?

“The impact will be huge,” Mathew Horsman, director of London-based media consultancy Mediatique, tells Variety. “The move towards direct-to-consumer is inexorable. Vertical integration is occurring. The big boys will be fine, but there’s no room for everyone to be a big boy.”

Horsman predicts that even catalog fare will become pricey for channel buyers, which may have to consolidate to grow their VOD offerings in order to withstand the might of SVOD giants. The analyst notes, however, that Disney will likely pick and choose the territorial output deals it retains in the long run, as those are still a crucial source of revenue that may not be immediate with Star.

Indeed, Sasha Breslau, head of acquisitions for U.K. commercial broadcaster ITV, says the channel is continuing to partner with Disney for “key franchises” across both film and TV. Variety understands one of Disney’s major adult titles has been renewed with ITV, indicating an enduring flexibility in the post-Star landscape for certain content in select markets.

ITV’s broad suite of channels and open- ness to nonexclusive deals, unlike a player such as Sky, make it an attractive partner for Disney — at least, for as long as Disney is open to nonexclusive tie-ups. The picture five years down the line is murkier. “I’m not troubled by [Star],” Breslau notes, “but what happens in the future, I can’t predict.”

Traditional business will carry on for a while, Horsman stresses, but it’s hazardous to forge ahead without considering the cold market realities on the horizon.

“It might be like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, running off the edge of the cliff, still running furiously, then realizing that the cliff is behind him and [he’s] falling,” says Horsman. “The traditional market will go on for longer than you might think, but these trends of vertical integration and self-supply, along with the bifurcation of premium and non-premium content, will have an effect on the contours of the value chain.”

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