next-upnext upauthorJanko RoettgersNoneDo you know what's coming next up in the world of tech and entertainment? Get Janko Roettgers' newsletter every Thursday.9147dfd6b1
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

Power

What TV remotes tell us about power struggles in streaming

TV remote controls are a major battlefield in the TV wars, which are fought one branded button at a time.

LG Magic Remote

LG's 2021 smart TV remote control features a total of three buttons for voice control.

Image: LG

Don't touch that dial: As TV manufacturers are unveiling their 2021 models at this year's virtual CES, they're also giving us a first look at the remote controls that will be shipping with those big, shiny and smart TV sets.

There were a few surprises. LG's remotes come with built-in NFC to transfer videos from mobile devices to the TV, and Samsung's remotes incorporate solar cells that are meant to reduce battery waste. The new crop of 2021 TV remotes also perfectly encapsulates the conflicts and power struggles in the TV industry, from streaming services vying for attention to voice assistant platforms' fierce competition.

There are more branded buttons on this year's TVs than ever, giving us a taste of the conflicts behind the scenes.

Money and power: The branded button

It's been 10 years since Netflix first partnered with makers of streaming devices and smart TVs to add a dedicated Netflix button to their remote controls. Fast forward a decade, and those shortcut buttons are ubiquitous — and multiplying.

Take Hisense for example. The Chinese smart TV maker ships some of its 2021 TVs with a remote that has six branded buttons for streaming services, including not only Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube, but also free streaming service Tubi as well as relative newcomers Disney+ and Peacock.

Branded buttons like these have long been paid product placements, with streaming services paying around $1 per remote to put their brand closer to a consumer's fingertips. However, as streaming services grow, these buttons have also become part of numerous turf wars. Netflix, for instance, has for years forced device makers to include a branded button in order to get access to its app, according to industry insiders.

And while TV makers were long happy to just take the extra revenue, they're increasingly looking to compete with their own streaming services. Remotes from both LG and Samsung feature dedicated buttons for their respective ad-supported streaming services, with Samsung notably only giving branded buttons to two other streaming services (Netflix and Prime Video).

Not every company is that constrained, though. Including a button for its own collection of free streaming channels, Vizio's 2021 remote features a whopping seven branded shortcut buttons.

Disputed territory: Smart TV platform remotes

While companies like LG and Samsung have long designed TV remote controls to their own liking, TV makers that license smart TV operating systems have much less freedom. TVs that run Roku's operating system need to ship with a Roku remote, whereas TVs using Amazon's smart TV OS tend to include remotes that look just like those that come with the company's own streaming devices.

Google has given TV and streaming device makers more liberties in the past, resulting in a range of different remotes. Now, the company apparently seems to institute stricter requirements. Google has developed its own reference remote, and is said to "strongly recommend" that manufacturers adopt it, according to the usually well-informed Android TV Guide Twitter account.

This new mandate coincides with Google's switch to its new branded user interface, which emphasizes Google-selected content recommendations over individual apps. As part of that strategy change, Google is also imploring TV and streaming device makers to include a dedicated button for its Watchlist feature, which is essentially a bookmarking service for individual shows and movies across desktop, mobile and TV.

There's only one problem: Netflix is not on board with platforms disaggregating its catalog, and instead prefers that viewers fire up the Netflix app to discover new titles. As a result, Netflix has forced Google to disable the Watchlist feature for Netflix originals on TV-connected devices. Users can still add Netflix tiles to their Google Watchlist on the web, but they can't edit that list or even rate Netflix titles on Android TV devices — making the Watchlist button effectively a shortcut to disputed territory.

The final frontier: Voice assistants

The microphone button has quickly become one of the most coveted properties on TV remote controls. Google has made its own Google Assistant the default voice platform for Android TV devices, and Amazon is relying on its Alexa assistant for TVs running Fire TV OS. On third-party devices, the two companies are increasingly butting heads.

For example, South Korean electronics giant LG is using its own webOS as the software platform for its smart TVs, but began adding support for third-party voice assistants a few years ago — a process that hasn't always gone smoothly.

In 2020, LG let consumers access the Google Assistant via its main voice search button, effectively making it the default voice engine for its TVs. The company also had a partnership with Amazon to integrate Alexa, but Google rejected the idea of sharing the mic button, forcing LG to institute a less than intuitive workaround: People who preferred to use Amazon's voice assistant were instructed to forgo the mic button altogether and long-press the Prime Video button to trigger Alexa.

This time around, LG decided to give Amazon's voice assistant a slightly more prominent placement in the form of a dedicated Alexa button. To keep all things equal, it also added a dedicated Google Assistant button to its 2021 remote control. And because LG's webOS does offer some basic voice commands to change channels or open apps, the company also kept the default microphone button on its remote.

The result: three separate voice assistant buttons on a single remote control.

Why those buttons won't disappear anytime soon

Consumers may have mixed feelings about all those branded buttons; some even try to figure out how to reprogram their remote controls. However, people do also like cheap TVs, and with the average purchase price of a TV set declining by 60% between 2014 and 2019, manufacturers have to find new ways to monetize their products. A few dollars here and there can make a real difference in a business with razor-thin margins, and Samsung and Roku have demonstrated that there's real money to be made in running and heavily promoting their own ad-supported streaming services.

Some of those extra buttons could be avoided if tech companies just played nice. Amazon, for instance, has long advocated for voice interoperability, which would allow companies like LG to add just a single microphone button to its TV remotes that could offer access to a multitude of voice assistants.

Google has been steadfast in rejecting such proposals, all but guaranteeing that future TVs will continue to have a whole lot of button bloat.

Twitter’s future is newsletters and podcasts, not tweets

With Revue and a slew of other new products, Twitter is trying hard to move past texting.

We started with 140 characters. What now?

Image: Liv Iko/Protocol

Twitter was once a home for 140-character missives about your lunch. Now, it's something like the real-time nerve center of the internet. But as for what Twitter wants to be going forward? It's slightly more complicated.

In just the last few months, Twitter has rolled out Fleets, a Stories-like feature; started testing an audio-only experience called Spaces; and acquired the podcast app Breaker and the video chat app Squad. And on Tuesday, Twitter announced it was acquiring Revue, a newsletter platform. The whole 140-characters thing (which is now 280 characters, by the way) is certainly not Twitter's organizing principle anymore. So what is?

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Power

It chased fraudsters. Now, Pindrop wants to simplify streaming.

The security startup has struck a partnership with TiVo to personalize voice search.

Pindrop is partnering with TiVo to bring its voice authentication technology to smart TVs and streaming devices.

Photo: Scott Eells/Getty Images

Chicken Man was trying to be clever.

Calling up banks to trick unsuspecting customer service agents, the scam artist would always play a recording of chickens in the background to mask his voice. Security experts at Pindrop, a voice authentication startup used by major financial institutions to screen 1.1 billion calls last year, got such a kick out of his efforts that they even named a conference room after him. However, Chicken Man couldn't defeat Pindrop's technology, and ultimately helped the company prepare for a new challenge: a typical family's living room.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Power

Roku is becoming the most powerful company in streaming

A growing user base will give it even more power in content negotiations.

Roku's emerging as one of the streaming war's biggest winners.

Photo: Luke Sharrett/Getty Images

Roku's bet on smart TVs is paying off: Seven years after the company first began licensing its operating system to TV manufacturers, it has become a market leader in North America. Roku and its hardware partners sold more smart TVs in the U.S. in 2020 than competitors like Samsung, LG and Vizio, according to data from the NPD Group released by Roku on Friday.

Roku TVs had a 38% market share in the U.S. and a 31% market share in Canada, according to NPD's data. Roku also announced earlier this week that it had ended 2020 with 51.2 million active accounts, adding around 14 million accounts over the past 12 months. Altogether, consumers streamed 58.7 billion hours of entertainment through their Roku devices in 2020, according to a news release.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Power

LG has acquired TV ad tech startup Alphonso

Alphonso could help LG build out its smart TV advertising business.

Alphonso could help LG monetize its TVs with ads.

Photo: LG

Korean consumer electronics giant LG has acquired a controlling stake in TV advertising measurement startup Alphonso, investing more than $80 million in the company. LG announced the acquisition Wednesday, a day after Protocol first reported that a deal was imminent. With the acquisition, LG is looking to beef up the advertising business on its smart TV platform and better compete with companies like Samsung, Roku, Amazon and Vizio.

"Our investment in Alphonso is a key component of our digital transformation strategy focusing on AI, big data and cloud to fundamentally change how consumers interact with their devices," said LG Home Entertainment President Park Hyoung-sei. "With Alphonso's TV data analysis capabilities, LG will be able to provide even more customized services and content to consumers and we are proud to welcome Alphonso to the LG family."

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Deepdub uses AI to dub movies in the voice of famous actors

Fresh out of stealth, the startup is using artificial intelligence to automate the localization process for global streaming.

Deepdub promises AI dubbing at the click of a button.

Image: Deepdub

The streaming wars aren't just about domestic viewers anymore: Netflix, Disney, HBO Max and the like increasingly compete around the world. Around a third of Disney+ subscribers, for instance, are based in India, and the company is looking to further grow its international audience in Europe and Latin America.

Tel Aviv-based startup Deepdub wants to help streaming services accelerate this kind of international rollout by using artificial intelligence for their localization needs. Deepdub, which came out of stealth on Wednesday, has built technology that can translate a voice track to a different language, all while staying true to the voice of the talent. This makes it possible to have someone like Morgan Freeman narrate a movie in French, Italian or Russian without losing what makes Freeman's voice special and recognizable.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Latest Stories