Roku Users Lose Access To YouTube TV As Dumb Contract Fights Shift From Cable TV To Streaming

from the meet-the-new-boss dept

For decades now, cable TV consumers have been subjected to idiotic cable TV “retransmission feuds” that black out content consumers pay for as broadcasters and cable operators bicker over rates. And while streaming TV was supposed to remedy many of the dumber aspects of the traditional cable TV model, that’s not really happening. The names and gatekeepers are simply shifting.

Case in point: last year, bickering between AT&T and Roku over ad data sharing and contract details prevented AT&T’s HBO Max from appearing on Roku devices. Later on last year, Sinclair-owned CBS stations were pulled from Hulu completely because the two sides couldn’t put on their big boy pants and agree to a new contract without taking it out on paying subscribers.

This week, it’s Roku and Google (YouTube TV) in a standoff that resulted in the YouTube TV app being pulled from the Roku channel store. YouTube TV (not to be confused with vanilla YouTube) is Google’s live TV streaming alternative to traditional cable. Users who already have it installed can still use it, but those who just bought the service and want to install it can’t do so as of today. Fortunately this isn’t a full ban either, since there’s still a workaround that involves casting content from your phone, tablet, or PC to the Roku in a way that’s a little more cumbersome but doesn’t require the YouTubeTV app.

Why the hassle in the first place? Roku, in a statement earlier this week, claimed Google was abusing its “monopoly position” (which really doesn’t make sense when talking about live streaming TV, where they’re a relatively niche player) to do all sorts of dastardly things:

“Google is attempting to use its YouTube monopoly position to force Roku into accepting predatory, anti-competitive and discriminatory terms that will directly harm Roku and our users. It should come as no surprise that Google is now demanding unfair and anti-competitive terms that harm Roku?s users.”

Google then issued a statement claiming Roku was just being a bully:

“We have been working with Roku in good faith to reach an agreement that benefits our viewers and their customers. Unfortunately, Roku often engages in these types of tactics in their negotiations. We?re disappointed that they chose to make baseless claims while we continue our ongoing negotiations. All of our work with them has been focused on ensuring a high quality and consistent experience for our viewers. We have made no requests to access user data or interfere with search results. We hope we can resolve this for the sake of our mutual users.”

Roku says it’s not demanding any additional money, even though these debates always revolve around money in one form or another. How much access each side has to valuable user usage data, where and how channels see placement within the GUI, search results, etc. But whichever side is to blame, it’s all stuff that should be getting hammered out by adults long before it bubbles over into a giant annoyance that impacts consumers.

A YouTube TV blog post offers a little more detail, stating that Google simply wanted its existing contract renewed, but Roku, buoyed by significant user growth thanks to COVID lockdowns, has been getting increasingly demanding in negotiations. The post also notes that Google really wants Roku to get on board with the AV1 codec, so things, you know, work:

“Our agreements with partners have technical requirements to ensure a high quality experience on YouTube. Roku requested exceptions that would break the YouTube experience and limit our ability to update YouTube in order to fix issues or add new features. For example, by not supporting open-source video codecs, you wouldn?t be able to watch YouTube in 4K HDR or 8K even if you bought a Roku device that supports that resolution.”

While I doubt Google is faultless, I do tend to think Roku is starting to get cocky as it gets more powerful. And while I’ll admit a certain enjoyment in traditional telecom monopoly gatekeepers like AT&T and Comcast whining about unfair gatekeeping behavior of streaming hardware companies, none of this is what adult professionals doing business should look like, and I worry a lot of these kinds of disputes will only be getting worse. Traditionally, regulators like the FCC have treated this kind of stuff as just “boys being boys.” That, in turn, generally results in nobody, at any point, looking out for the interest of the end user.

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Companies: google, roku, youtube

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Comments on “Roku Users Lose Access To YouTube TV As Dumb Contract Fights Shift From Cable TV To Streaming”

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27 Comments
Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Roku getting cockier...

While I doubt Google is faultless, I do tend to think Roku is starting to get cocky as it gets more powerful.

In the dustup they had with AT&T vis-à-vis HBO Max, Roku came up on top because they had acquired a whole new streaming service to their platform and it was a really big one with a lot of content. Also, since I have Roku, it was at that moment that I became an HBO Max subscriber. Would you say that Roku winning these fights would make them cocky? If so, I would say it’s understandable given all that.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Accusations without evidence, always a good move

I believe I’m going to go with a Popehat line for this one, as while it’s not a perfect fit(no threat) it would seem to work well enough:

Vagueness in a legal threat is the hallmark of meritless thuggery.

That Roku is willing to claim that Google is engaging in ‘predatory, anti-competitive and discriminatory’ actions but not actually list what those are leaves me suspecting that they might not be being completely honest here, and Google’s response/clarification leaves Roku in the position of either rebutting the claims that Roku did indeed want to ‘renegotiate’ the terms more in their favor and are refusing to make use of an open source codec to keep things working or admit that yeah, those were/are the sticking points.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Accusations without evidence, always a good move

So they might have said, but the Verge article includes a statement by Google that seems to suggest that that’s just Roku either making stuff up or exposing that the deal that they had in place already included that sort of activity.

Google’s stance is that it “can’t give Roku special treatment at the expense of users,” and it’s reiterating that there have been no requests to change search or for special access to user data. “This claim is baseless and false,” Google said in its post.

Unless one of them is flat out lying the only way I can think of to square the claims is that Roku was already doing those things for Google, and as the contract came up they wanted to change the deal but not own what they had been doing.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Unlike Cable and Satellite, there are fortunately always workarounds between Roku and a Streaming service. Let’s say they get in a fight with Disney and Disney+ and Hulu leave Roku temporarily: I can still view them on my Nintendo Switch, iPhone, and all my computers. Netflix? PS3, iPhone, Smart LG TV, all my computers, and satellite receiver. HBO Max again? iPhone and Computers.

It’s really easy to route around Roku so it’s not as dire a situation if Streaming companies have beef with them like they did during the Cable era.

nerdrage (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It may be doable but people are getting used to streaming being like TV: you point the remote at the big screen in the living room and click to get your shows.

Having to hook up your laptop to the TV or watch shows on your teeny phone screen is not really a good alternative to point-and-click convenience. Which gives Roku leverage. Is it really worth all the bother to find another way to watch YouTubeTV (and why does that even have customers at $65/month when for that price you could sign up for 5 or so streaming platforms with no ads and have way too much content to get around to).

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

rubs between his eyes
And while both sides will present this as trying to deliver the best for their customers, that’s the lie.

This is about fractions of cents & gobbling up more data for the panopticon of information about users that can be sold & resold over & over even if they always keep to keep showing you ads for things you just actually purchased.

This has happened from the beginning of content over wires, and yet none of them have spent the time to hammer out the details except for those times every few years when they screw customers for weeks over some cents.

We’ve always done it like this, it is always a shit show, it always ends up harming our customers but we can’t bother with that… shareholder value!!!!!!

Imagine a world where they put this much effort into making sure customers were getting the best experience instead of treating them as a cash crop to be harvested that should be happy with 5 channels.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Widget says:

AV1

I’m not defending Roku’s ACTIONS here, but I wanted to mention one reason Roku is pushing back on the AV1 thing. Roku offers a lot of inexpensive version of their hardware so that it is affordable for many users. One of the reasons for the AV1 dispute is that nobody has seemingly been able to make AV1 work on an inexpensive chip (at least that’s what it looks like from my reading). Roku actually have an AV1-compatible device (something Chromecast doesn’t, interestingly enough), but it costs $100+. Apparently, at least at the moment, nobody can sell an AV1-compatible device at the lower price points Roku likes having some devices at.

Again, doesn’t excuse this nonsense about YouTube TV, but Roku’s not avoiding the AV1 just for funsies. It kills part of their business model at the moment if they include it (for now). Once things get cheaper, I would not be surprised to see Roku include it in all their hardware, but as of now, that’s a bit much.

nerdrage (profile) says:

brace for more like this

When the AT&T-Roku feud broke out, I knew the writing was on the wall. Little Roku has realized that, with 50M users, they are a powerful gatekeeper between HBO Max etc and the customers, and they are seeing what they can get away with. AT&T, Google etc aren’t used to being kicked around by a minnow but I think in this case, the minnow has some serious shark teeth.

Roku would never try this with Netflix or Disney+, because those are too popular and there would be hell to pay. I guess I’ll keep my Roku TV as long as these feuds don’t interrupt my streaming preferences but when they do, I’ll look around for a better option, if one exists. It may be something of a nuisance to swap out hardware but it’s far from impossible and my Roku TV is getting pretty old by now anyway.

BernardoVerda (profile) says:

It's probably just me, but...

… in my first read through, I scanned this as…

even though these debates always revolve around money in one form or another. How much access each side has to valuable user hostage data, where and how channels see placement within the GUI, search results, etc.

These days, large corporations seem more likely to act as if they own their customers, rather than acting like they serve their customers.

Anonymous Coward says:

First, the headline is just plain wrong. YouTube TV users haven’t lost a thing, yet. I’m watching YouTube TV on a Roku as I type this. I know the article clears that up, but its a BS sensationalist headline, reminiscent of "fake news".

Second, Roku seems mainly to blame here. They spit out a bunch of unsupported lies about what Google is looking for. At the moment, AV1 will increase the cost of devices, but once economies of scale take hold (say, if a few million Roku users purchase them), the price will drop. Roku has a few low-cost low-end devices now, but it hasn’t always been that way. They’ve never had a problem sunsetting devices that lacked processing power along the way. Bring in the AV1 on higher end devices, and work it into the cheaper ones as the cost drops. Heck, they haven’t upgraded their streaming stick in years, but the price of that hasn’t dropped.

fairuse (profile) says:

Roku hardware in TV

I did hear about Roku getting it’s hardware in the TV instead of HDMI interface. Never followed up. Roku AVI that is currently in place would be a problem.

Streaming on a computer is always an exercise in controlling anger at sloppy motion. My TVroom LEDHD TV with Amazon Fire TV (HDMI) does not have quality errors. AV1 hardware changes for quality would require me to buy new Amazon TV thingy.

Roku via HDMI would be the same; If hardware is in the TV then there is a reason Roku is bitchy, customer will not be happy paying twice for a quality improvement.

I’m waiting for AT&T to sell Warner to Discovery. My HBO max is via Amazon Prime as is Disney+ (Amazon Fire TV). Peacock TV prem is no cost because Xfinity and Peacock app on mobile/tablet/Kindle Fire HD.
The Amazon TV thingy has Beta Xfinity Stream app but Peacock TV is a demo. NBC sports channel programming is moving to Peacock so expect NBC Sports app to change. I was not happy when I saw Amazon TV Thingy’ is waiting for Peacock TV.

Content, stuff I like to watch, is being spread across several apps like labels are back, IMDb TV is Amazon Free w/ ads.

Don’t worry we have been trained by Microsoft to buy new PC when update requires new I/O, Video, RAM, storage. i’m staying with HDMI devices in the hope I never see, "upgrade TV to run new features".

You know that is next.

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