How Comcast became the biggest winner in Hulu’s failed sale

Hulu’s future seems as murky as ever after today’s news that the site won’t be sold after all, and it almost looks like there are losers everywhere: Hulu’s co-owners didn’t get the money they wanted for the service, Hulu’s employees and executives are still stuck with a set of co-owners that may have different ideas for its future, and Hulu’s users most certainly can expect more content to go behind the paywall.

But there’s one exception: Comcast. (s CMCSK) The pay TV operator owns one third of Hulu, but it’s not allowed to influence its business, thanks to regulatory conditions put in place when Comcast merged with NBC Universal. These conditions also prevented Comcast from having any say on the aborted sale, but I’d bet that the folks over at Comcast are pretty happy with today’s outcome.

That’s because the top three contenders for Hulu included two of Comcast’s biggest rivals: AT&T (S ATT) and DirecTV. (S DTV) Cable companies like Comcast have seen many of their TV service customers flee to satellite and phone company rivals, and are now starting to feel the threat of cord cutters as well.

The common narrative around AT&T’s and DirecTV’s bids for Hulu, which are said to have been around $1 billion, is that the companies were looking to use the site to power their TV Everywhere services, allowing their subscribers even easier access to complimentary catch-up programming online.

But here’s the thing: TV Everywhere isn’t the be all and end all for pay TV providers, especially as these companies are looking to compete more aggressively with incumbents and fend off new threats: There are cord cutters unwilling to pay premium prices for expensive bundles, there are new entrants like Intel (S INTC) and its OnCue service that may pave the way for online-only subscription services with a live TV component, and there is Aereo – the startup that has prevailed in court with its unique take on broadcast retransmission, allowing it to skip payments to broadcasters and offer live TV streams on the cheap.

Intel and Aereo may not succeed, and cord cutting may stay small for the time being. But all of these trends point to the inevitability of what people in the industry call a virtual cable operator – a company that doesn’t own the pipes, but instead streams live TV over the internet, allowing it to compete with all of the existing operators in any market. Pay TV companies can ignore this threat, or they can see it as an opportunity. Reports that AT&T has talked to Aereo about a cooperation seem to indicate that at least that company isn’t willing to wait for others to decide its fate.

In light of that, buying Hulu would have been more than just a TV Everywhere play for AT&T and DirecTV. It could have been the first step towards an online-based pay-TV subscription, with a solid consumer base, name recognition and proven technology.

Now none of this is going to happen — and Comcast couldn’t be happier about that.