Who will buy Hulu, the IPTV streaming service and why should we care? I’m not sure I do care, now that Lie to Me has been canceled, but in case you are an American who feels the future of series television is important, here’s what I think is going on.

The Wall $treet Journal says Apple is thinking of making a bid for Hulu and Seattlepi.com says Microsoft’s is no longer interested, which leaves Amazon, Apple, Google, Yahoo, and any unnamed parties. I can’t think of any unnamed parties, by the way, so I’m guessing one of these will walk with Hulu, which went into play a couple weeks ago following an unsolicited (and still unidentified) bid.

Of course the three big network owners of Hulu will guarantee five years of continued program access with the first two years exclusive. That’s because they have no money in Hulu and each stands to walk with $600+ million from the sale, but only if there is a sale. Without such an exclusivity period there will be no sale and no $600+ million. None of these networks can buy out the others for antitrust reasons so the “networks might balk” story is just to sell newspapers (or electrons). Hulu will be sold.

It will be interesting to see how much Hulu will cost the winner, though. The company appears to be managing the press brilliantly to generate buzz. Any of the interested parties could do the deal all in cash, no problem. But who will end up with it? Here’s my score sheet.

Apple will buy Hulu if the price is right, but how much higher than $2 Billion they will go? I suspect Apple may actually be just meddling here, trying to make it more expensive for the eventual winner.

Microsoft has already telegraphed that $2 billion is too high, but since they probably can’t afford to not be in this business that suggests they will put some smaller amount (still $1+ billion) into content deals.

For that matter, all the losers will be looking for content, so I’d say $4+ billion is up for grabs in Hollywood beyond Hulu. New cars all around!

Amazon just did a content deal with CBS (so did Netflix — remember them?) so buying Hulu would round out their content for Amazon Prime, likely bringing-in millions more customer accounts. But there, too, it depends on what is Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ price target. He and Jobs are very similar in that they will have a maximum in mind and probably won’t go higher.

My gut suggests that the auction will finally come down to Google and Yahoo, if Google can get this past the feds despite its dominant position with YouTube. Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz probably sees this as her best chance to avoid being fired so I think she’ll bid high. I suspect, too, that Yahoo’s unsolicited interest was what started Hulu in play in the first place, though that’s just a guess on my part.

Buying Hulu could also be Bartz’ undoing, though, because she could blow half her cash or more (I suspect Google will go to $3 billion and Yahoo will beat that) and then find herself in a position where she can’t make a profit on her purchase, especially since she’ll have to do her own CBS deal at that point and CBS CEO Les Moonves won’t make that cheap. Amazon reportedly paid $100+ million to CBS, but Moonves will try to hold out for closer to the $600+ million he would have received had CBS been a Hulu owner, seeing anything less as charity.

The fascinating scenario here, of course, is that Yahoo way overpays, damaging itself fatally in the process and ends up being acquired by one of the others, probably Microsoft.

No wonder Ballmer pulled out of the bidding, he’s playing the long game.