Is Wal-Mart Ready to Try Web TV Again, With Vudu’s Help?

vudu-logo-001Wal-Mart has tried twice to deliver movies and TV shows to its customers. Is it ready to try again?

Maybe. Sources tell me Web video start-up Vudu is in “meaningful” acquisition discussions, and industry executives believe Wal-Mart is the likely buyer.

Vudu executives declined to comment. I’ve lobbed a call into the Wal-Mart (WMT) press center but haven’t heard back.

It’s a deal that makes some sense on paper: Vudu is one of many services that give consumers a chance to rent or buy movies over the Web, but it hasn’t gotten much traction. “It’s a beautiful product and a really great service, in need of distribution,” says a person familiar with the company.

And Wal-Mart has tried video delivery twice before but backed away each time. Acquiring a tech team at the right price could help it make a third effort.

After trying for two years to compete with Netflix’s DVD-by-mail business, Wal-Mart gave up in 2005 and agreed to send its customers directly to Netflix (NFLX). In 2007, with the backing of all the big studios and tech help from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), the retailer tried to launch a download service, a la Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes. But it abandoned that effort in less than a year.

Meanwhile, sources say Vudu has been seeking a buyer–in the form of either a big-box retailer or an electronics manufacturer–for some time without success. Internet executive Mark Jung ran the company for a year but left in November 2008; founder Alain Rossmann became interim CEO when Jung left and has kept the title since then.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Vudu has raised at least $21 million from Benchmark Capital and Greylock Partners. I’m told that when the company was marketing itself last fall, it was looking for a sale price of $50 million or more. But it may not have much leverage to command a premium.

Vudu started out by marketing an Internet-connected box that consumers plugged into their TVs, but that offering seemed to underwhelm customers (as well as All Things D’s Katie Boehret). It is now focused on building that technology directly into TVs and Blu-ray players and marketing itself as a Netflix-like service.

The company’s supposed strengths are a video compression technology that makes it feasible to stream movies in high definition and a peer-to-peer architecture that cuts down the cost of delivering large files. UPDATE: Vudu reps tell me they no longer use P2P for file delivery.

The Netflix and Warner Bros. Pact: Subscribers Wait for New Movies, Get More on the Web

netflix ticketHere’s a marriage of convenience: A pact between Netflix and Warner Bros. that gives both sides some of what they want, at least for now.

Netflix (NFLX) has agreed not to rent the Time Warner (TWX) studio’s movies for the first 28 days after they go on sale. In return, it will pay the studio a reduced fee when it does rent the discs, and will get more movies to offer via its growing Web streaming service.

Hard to get a very good sense of the deal because no dollar signs have surfaced so far. But the broad strokes sound good for both sides: Warner gets a big distributor to help it protect its retail sales for a bit longer, and Netflix gets to reallocate the money it spends from discs to digital.

Here’s Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Hollywood emissary, via Reuters:

Sarandos declined to comment specifically on the economics of the deal but said it represents meaningful savings in terms of what it spent on Warner’s physical discs in 2009. He said, however, Netflix was reinvesting those savings in streaming.

“On a net basis in 2010, we’re growing our spending on the studios even if we are saving on physical DVDs,” he said, adding he expects this trend to continue as more and more customers seek movies through its streaming service.

“In 2010, Netflix will spend $600 million on postage,” said Sarandos who envisions “moving that entire bucket of spending to Hollywood and out of the post office.”

Note that this is exactly the agreement that Warner and other studios have not been able to strike with Redbox, the upstart rental outfit, which has led to a legal fight.

And it helps Netflix answer a question I hear more and more often these days: When will it be able to expand its selection of digital movies, which right now remains just a fraction of its physical catalog?

I’ll be able to ask CEO Reed Hastings that question myself on Friday during an interview at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, where the All Things Digital team is gathering for the annual Consumer Electronics Show. You can listen in to what Hastings has to say at CES via a Web-streaming offering of our own Friday afternoon. Some details here, and more to come.

HuffPo Needs Ad Dollars. Can Yahoo Sales Vets Deliver?

colemanThe Huffington Post has a newish CEO, a big pile of investors’ money and a lot of readers. Time to turn it into a business.

That’s the idea behind a brace of new sales guys, brought in by sales head Greg Coleman, who is himself a newish addition to the site.

The hires:

  • Andy Wiedlin, formerly at News Corp.’s (NWS) MySpace, and Yahoo before that, will run West Coast sales.
  • Phil Cara, formerly at AOL, and Yahoo before that, will run East Coast sales.
  • Peter Cherukuri, the former publisher of Roll Call, will run sales in Washington, D.C.
  • Brian Kaminsky, formerly at Reuters, and Yahoo prior to that, will run sales operations out of New York.

Note the connection for three of the four new guys? Not a coincidence.

Coleman was the longtime Yahoo (YHOO) sales head until he got pushed out in 2007. He resurfaced last year as head of AOL’s (AOL) sales group but left less than three months into the job when new CEO Tim Armstrong brought in his guy.

At the new gig, Coleman’s plan is to use his new/old team to convince advertisers to start spending significant money. The site was on track to do something in the $10 million range last year, but CEO Eric Hippeau wants to goose that number to $100 million in the next few years in order to justify the $37 million that investors have sunk into the company.

Coleman came to the site last fall when it already had a good traffic story to tell–comScore (SCOR) counted 6.8 million unique users in September, which is more than WSJ.com’s 6.7 million. And that story will get better very soon, as comScore rolls out its new “hybrid” measuring system. Coleman says the new numbers will push Huffpo above the 17 million mark.

His team still needs to battle the perception that Huffpo is an all-politics (and lefty, to boot) site, since advertisers are often leery about anything political.

Sure enough, as I’m typing this Monday night, the site’s front page is dominated by Washington coverage–a banner headline about the Republican Party’s opposition to something called the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. And no matter what Coleman and his guys say, no one’s going to confuse the site with, say, Fox News.

Still, the site has long argued that it isn’t dominated by political coverage, and Coleman now says less than 25 percent of its traffic comes from that stuff. A heavy dose of entertainment/media coverage–did you know the dude from “300″ now has man boobs and a paunch?–helps make that claim plausible.

Will advertisers buy it? People who aren’t Greg Coleman tell me marketers were already warming to the site this year, a result of work done by the previous regime. And in large part due to interest from entertainment companies pushing new movies and TV shows.

But if Coleman and his employers want to hit their $100 million goal, they’ll need to do a lot more work. For more on Coleman’s strategy, check out his conversation with Kara Swisher from last fall.