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.