Updated: Comcast-NBCU: Premium Hulu ‘Not In The Cards’? Verdict Still Out

Actually, we suspect Hulu board meetings already have a potential to be more intriguing than the norm given the myriad interests and egos involved but the last comments on Comcast’s call with investors to pitch the NBCU deal suggest the cable operators’ notions about premium content may differ from its JV media partners News Corp (NYSE: NWS) and Disney (NYSE: DIS). Asked about the role Hulu would play with Comcast’s TV Everywhere strategy, COO Steve Burke called NBCU’s current strategy of making most broadcast content free on Hulu and being careful not to put too much cable out there for free “smart” and “appropriate.” Following the deal’s close, he would expect lots of broadcast content to remain free on Hulu, with online access to cable content being reserved for video subscribers via TV Everywhere.

What about a premium version of Hulu? “Not in the cards,” said Burke. That directly contradicts the expressed interests of Disney, News Corp — and NBCU — execs to see some subscriptions and possibly electronic-sell-thru added to Hulu in the future, suggesting that Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) envisions Hulu as the “free” outlet (along with network sites) and primarily for broadcast. Then again, NBCU only has a 27 percent stake in Hulu so can be overruled. Like I said, it could get interesting. Roberts and Burke have another crack at explaining the Hulu strategy when they meet with the media by phone later this morning, along with GE CEO Jeff Immelt and NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker. Check back for updates.

Update: And as could be expected, we have the first truly obvious walk-back of the day. Burke, who rarely says something in public that he doesn’t intend to say, telling reporters what he really meant when by saying premium wasn’t “in the cards” for Hulu. Here his explanation:

“Let’s start with the fact that we think the way NBC Universal (NYSE: GE) is distributing its video content on the internet is very consistent with the way we would do it. In other words, lots of broadcast content on Hulu, being very careful about the cable content that goes out on the internet for free and look at things like TV Everywhere as a way to control how that content goes out. We start from the premise that during the year it’s going to take for this deal to be approved, NBC Universal is highly likely to be doing exactly what we would do. Obviously, once the deal is approved, we’re going to want NBC Universal to do continue to do what it needs to do to maximize the value of its product on the internet.” About that response on the investor call? “I was asked ‘do you have any plans to make Hulu a premium content service’ and I said that’s not in the cards. What I meant by that was that’s not our decision. We’re not coming into to this with any preconceived notions. NBC Universal is a minority partner of Hulu.We hope that they will continue to run Hulu successfully because it’s an important asset. For the next year, those are their decisions. I actually think Hulu and TV Everywhere are very complementary…. I think for the foreseeable future, there’ll be a place for both. But the specific question about Hulu’s strategy and charging for content — that’s really something for Hulu. … We have no grand plan.”

Burke wiggled out of the corner with that but still managed to do some qualifying. What happens after a year? What’s the foreseeable future? And will NBCU wind up taking back cable content that is already there or usually offered? NBCU has held back Top Chef and the like but has used online and free downloads to gain attention for some cable shows on USA, Scyfy and other nets. Comcast’s Fancast video portal — one of the digital properties not included in the deal — was an early Hulu partner.

i Zucker’s take: Following that, as the Hulu board member in the room (and Burke’s future direct report), Zucker shied away from talking about Hulu’s plans. “The product road map for Hulu is not something we want to publicly talk about,” Zucker said. “Obviously there are a number of things that Hulu is looking at and whether or not subscription makes sense is something we will look at in the months ahead.”