Something has been bothering me since Roku and Google started fighting earlier this year.
In its ongoing transportation dispute, Roku has accused Google of being a bully by requiring YouTube to enjoy special search and voice control privileges on the Roku platform. These lawsuits, Roku says, jeopardize the “fair and open” market it has tried to establish, and it seems willing to lose YouTube to protect its broader goals. (Google, in turn, has threatened to remove YouTube from the Roku platform on December 9 for anyone who has not yet downloaded the app.)
I don’t want to mess with Roku or downplay Google’s unchecked market power, but I disagree with the idea that any streaming platform is fair, open, or neutral. All the major players in the streaming wars are known to go all out, including Roku, and special treatment is more common than the company suggests.
Let’s look at the evidence.
Roku powers Roku content
Open the Roku mobile app and you’ll see The Roku Channel gets a more prominent promotion than anything else. A large row of “Featured on Roku Channel” sits near the top of the home screen, with handy “Play Now” and “Add to Saved List” buttons. Keep scrolling and you’ll find equally great promotions for Roku’s live channels. Rather, see what is available in other Services require exploring multiple menu layers.
Similarly, the “Free Featured” section of the Roku home screen weighs heavily in promoting Roku content. As of this writing on a Roku Streaming Stick 4K, the top row “Featured” in that section includes 26 selections from The Roku Channel, versus four from other apps. Meanwhile, the “Live TV” section of the menu only includes linear streams from The Roku Channel, without any from competing apps like Pluto TV or Plex.
Of course, Roku has every right to steer users to content that helps drive their targeted advertising businessBut it comes at the expense of a more neutral system that could better connect users to what they really want to watch.
Special treatment is not unusual
Roku’s complaints against Google largely revolve around special search and voice control treatment. Roku notes that Google has searched a specific YouTube row in search results, for example, and that you want voice searches from within the YouTube app to only include results from YouTube.
As I wrote in April, YouTube already enjoys both privileges on the Roku platform, so it’s unclear why this is suddenly a point of contention. But YouTube isn’t the only one getting this kind of special treatment, either.
Using voice search from within Netflix, for example, also limits results to the Netflix app. If you request something like “comedy”, you will not see results from the larger Roku catalog. (In other applications, such as Disney +, you will see a pop-up window with results from both the current application and external sources.)
Netflix receives preferential treatment in other ways as well. It is exempt from appearing in the Roku mobile app’s genre-based content menus and the “Save List” that allows users to track shows for later viewing, and its content does not appear on the “My Source” section to track programs on Roku. players. As a result, it is more difficult to access the Netflix catalog without spending more time directly within the Netflix app, which is exactly what Netflix wants. I’d say this hurts streaming fairness more than anything YouTube is doing, but you don’t hear Roku say anything about it.
Roku also picks favorites
Roku users also know that the company has long partnered with a single rental store for videos to appear on their home screen, which is currently Vudu Fandango. I am not aware of the details of this placement agreement, but I know that it is non-negotiable for users. While you can hide the TV and Movie Store entirely from the home screen, you can’t replace it with another rental source, such as Amazon Video or Apple TV.
Roku also directs users in certain directions when streaming music. The company currently supports voice control for four music services: Spotify, Pandora, TuneIn, and iHeart Radio, and it has a hierarchy that it will send you to by default. Assuming you’ve installed all four, asking to play music will send you to Spotify, unless you specify another service by name. Roku never asks which service you prefer, and the only way to change the default settings is via a page on the Roku website. Spotify is also the “launch partner” of a new row of music and podcasts in search results, excluding all other services.
There is no neutral
Again, I don’t mention all of this just to annoy Roku, a company whose streaming players I generally like. Nor am I arguing that Google wields its unchecked power in search and advertising businesses as a weapon against competition, sometimes to the detriment of its users. (Here are just a couple of recent examples..)
Instead, I’m simply trying to dispel the idea that streaming platforms are a kind of utopia of freedom and openness. In reality, they are large companies run by powerful guardians, including Roku, vying for position against a number of powerful media empires. Throwing your own weight is part of the game.
Namely: When Roku banned NBCUniversal’s Peacock app from the platform last year, it was able to Get NBC content on The Roku Channel as part of an eventual deal. When Amazon started selling rental videos on Apple TV devices last year, it turned out to be part of a secret program that gave media companies a better revenue split. in exchange for supporting certain Apple TV features. When Google blocked YouTube from some Amazon devices in 2017, it was linked to a wide range of anti-competitive behavior by both companies. And if you’ve noticed a Netflix button on pretty much every streaming remote, know it’s because Netflix is powerful enough to require it.
I would love to live in the world Roku seems to imagine, where streaming platforms are neutral ground and all companies must compete on an equal footing to make their content stand out. But it turns out that they are businesses like any other, in which the interests of the users often take a back seat to the most important forces at work.
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