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Power

Roku is becoming the most powerful company in streaming

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

Roku is becoming the most powerful company in streaming

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.

Both data points demonstrate how much of a force the company has become in North America, giving it even more power in negotiations with media companies looking to run their services on Roku streaming sticks and TVs. However, they also highlight how much Roku's business has been solely focused on the TV space, giving competitors a chance to dominate other smart device categories.

After first making a name for itself with its streaming boxes, Roku began licensing its operating system to TV manufacturers in 2014, with one of its early licensing partners including China's TCL, then virtually unknown in North America. With affordable TV sets and a UI that emphasized simplicity over fancy new features, TCL and Roku managed to grow their market share year after year; at the end of 2019, every third smart TV sold in the U.S. was running Roku's operating system.

The growing popularity of Roku TVs and streaming devices has helped the company grow its advertising business and negotiate more favorable contracts with media companies looking to launch their apps on its platform. Roku is not only demanding revenue and ad-sharing agreements for any app that runs on its platform, but is also increasingly pressing media companies to make parts of their catalog available via its own free Roku Channel streaming service. Last year, negotiations between AT&T and Roku broke down, resulting in HBO Max not being available in Roku devices for six months.

Roku's expansion into other hardware categories has been more of a mixed bag. The company has made its own wireless speakers that work only with Roku TVs and streaming devices, but listings on various ecommerce websites suggest only modest demand. Roku's wireless bookshelf speakers were ranked No. 2,850 on Amazon.com's sales charts for consumer electronics devices at the time of writing. For comparison, Amazon's own Echo Dot speaker ranked No. 1, with other Amazon speakers and smart displays following closely behind.

At one point, Roku developed a dedicated Wi-Fi product called Roku Relay that was supposed to optimize wireless connectivity for Roku streaming devices. The company tested Relay with a small number of consumers, but ultimately decided to not bring it to market.

Roku has been making some headway in cooperating with third-party companies in the audio space with a licensing program for third-party sound bars and speakers. Participating companies can market their devices as Roku TV Ready and integrate software to simplify setup. Roku TV Ready partners include TCL, Hisense, Enclave, Sound United and Bose, with Element scheduled to launch its own Roku TV Ready products this month. On Friday, Roku also announced that TCL would launch the first Roku TV Ready wireless sound bar in the coming months.

Power

The video game industry is bracing for its Netflix and Spotify moment

Subscription gaming promises to upend gaming. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing.

It's not clear what might fall through the cracks if most of the biggest game studios transition away from selling individual games and instead embrace a mix of free-to-play and subscription bundling.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Subscription services are coming for the game industry, and the shift could shake up the largest and most lucrative entertainment sector in the world. These services started as small, closed offerings typically available on only a handful of hardware platforms. Now, they're expanding to mobile phones and smart TVs, and promising to radically change the economics of how games are funded, developed and distributed.

Of the biggest companies in gaming today, Amazon, Apple, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony and Ubisoft all operate some form of game subscription. Far and away the most ambitious of them is Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, featuring more than 100 games for $9.99 a month and including even brand-new titles the day they release. As of January, Game Pass had more than 18 million subscribers, and Microsoft's aggressive investment in a subscription future has become a catalyst for an industrywide reckoning on the likelihood and viability of such a model becoming standard.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Policy

Lina Khan wants to hear from you

The new FTC chair is trying to get herself, and the sometimes timid tech-regulating agency she oversees, up to speed while she still can.

Lina Khan is trying to push the FTC to corral tech companies

Photo: Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images

"When you're in D.C., it's very easy to lose connection with the very real issues that people are facing," said Lina Khan, the FTC's new chair.

Khan made her debut as chair before the press on Wednesday, showing up to a media event carrying an old maroon book from the agency's library and calling herself a "huge nerd" on FTC history. She launched into explaining how much she enjoys the open commission meetings she's pioneered since taking over in June. That's especially true of the marathon public comment sessions that have wrapped up each of the two meetings so far.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Fintech

Beyond Robinhood: Stock exchange rebates are under scrutiny too

Some critics have compared the way exchanges attract orders from customers to the payment for order flow system that has enriched retail brokers.

The New York Stock Exchange is now owned by the Intercontinental Exchange.

Photo: Aditya Vyas/Unsplash

As questions pile up about how powerful and little-known Wall Street entities rake in profits from stock trading, the exchanges that handle vast portions of everyday trading are being scrutinized for how they make money, too.

One mechanism in particular — exchange rebates, or payments from the exchanges for getting certain trades routed to them — has raised concerns with regulators and members of Congress.

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Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

Protocol | Workplace

The Activision Blizzard lawsuit has opened the floodgates

An employee walkout, a tumbling stock price and damning new reports of misconduct.

Activision Blizzard is being sued for widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination.

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Activision Blizzard is in crisis mode. The World of Warcraft publisher was the subject of a shocking lawsuit filed by California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing last week over claims of widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination against female employees. The resulting fallout has only intensified by the day, culminating in a 500-person walkout at the headquarters of Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine on Wednesday.

The company's stock price has tumbled nearly 10% this week, and CEO Bobby Kotick acknowledged in a message to employees Tuesday that Activision Blizzard's initial response was "tone deaf." Meanwhile, there has been a continuous stream of new reports unearthing horrendous misconduct as more and more former and current employees speak out about the working conditions and alleged rampant misogyny at one of the video game industry's largest and most powerful employers.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Workplace

Founder sues the company that acquired her startup

Knoq founder Kendall Hope Tucker is suing the company that acquired her startup for discrimination, retaliation and fraud.

Kendall Hope Tucker, founder of Knoq, is suing Ad Practitioners, which acquired her company last year.

Photo: Kendall Hope Tucker

Kendall Hope Tucker felt excited when she sold her startup last December. Tucker, the founder of Knoq, was sad to "give up control of a company [she] had poured five years of [her] heart, soul and energy into building," she told Protocol, but ultimately felt hopeful that selling it to digital media company Ad Practitioners was the best financial outcome for her, her team and her investors. Now, seven months later, Tucker is suing Ad Practitioners alleging discrimination, retaliation and fraud.

Knoq found success selling its door-to-door sales and analytics services to companies such as Google Fiber, Inspire Energy, Fluent Home and others. Knoq representatives would walk around neighborhoods, knocking on doors to market its customers' products and services. The pandemic, however, threw a wrench in its business. Prior to the acquisition, Knoq says it raised $6.5 million from Initialized Capital, Haystack.vc, Techstars and others.

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Megan Rose Dickey
Megan Rose Dickey is a senior reporter at Protocol covering labor and diversity in tech. Prior to joining Protocol, she was a senior reporter at TechCrunch and a reporter at Business Insider.
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