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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.
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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.