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No One Wins in Roku's Fight With YouTube and Amazon

By Rick Munarriz – Nov 2, 2021 at 11:55AM

Key Points

  • Roku and Alphabet's Google have been sparring from months to get a deal in place to keep YouTube and YouTube TV on Roku's operating system.
  • Amazon's Prime Video and IMDb TV are also now reportedly in negotiations with Roku.
  • Roku reports fresh financials on Wednesday afternoon, so we should get an update on the situation soon.

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The leading third-party streaming hub may lose popular apps if it can't come to terms with two of the most valuable companies on the planet.

The truce between Roku (ROKU -0.38%) and Alphabet's (GOOG -1.75%) (GOOGL -1.10%) Google to keep YouTube TV and YouTube itself on the popular smart-TV hub is starting to come undone. The two parties can't come to terms on extending their current partnership, and Alphabet isn't the only tech giant swinging at Roku these days. 

Reports surfaced last week that Amazon (AMZN -4.92%) is now locking horns with Roku. If that dispute is not settled, it could see Amazon's Prime Video and its more-obscure IMDb TV gone from the app store of Roku's streaming interface. 

Someone curled up on a couch aiming a remote control at a TV.

Image source: Getty Images.

Agnosticism isn't easy in the streaming space

The allure of Roku is that it offers thousands of streaming apps through its free operating system. Folks buying a television with Roku as the default factory-installed platform (a lot of people, since that was the case for 38% of the smart TVs sold in this country last year) as well as those paying $20 to $60 for a Roku dongle that attaches to any TV are used to having access to whatever streaming service they crave. 

Unlike Amazon and Google, which have rival streaming devices, Roku's pitch has been its agnosticism. The perception out there, as unfair as it may seem, is that buying an Amazon Fire TV or Google Chromecast will nudge viewers to each tech giant's proprietary platforms. Roku has been building out its proprietary offerings, but it bills itself as an app-agnostic player that plays nice with everybody. 

Consumers tend to agree. There were more than 55 million active accounts on Roku at the end of June, a 28% increase over the past year. Many hail Roku as a master class in how to compete against some of the world's most valuable companies and not only survive but actually thrive in that climate. 

In reality, Roku isn't as agnostic as it would have you believe. It does come up with tense contract renewals, and this isn't even the first time that it's fighting two major players at once. Last year it kept Peacock and HBO Max off of its hub until it was able to negotiate acceptable terms.  

History tells us that Roku will eventually play nice with Google and Amazon. One or both parties will blink. It's a lose-lose situation if they don't work out a deal, even if neither side probably thinks that it is the one with more to lose. 

Roku is growing in both its audience size and its ability to monetize its free users through ads. No one may notice if it loses IMDb TV or even YouTube TV. You've probably never fired up IMDb TV, and there are plenty of live TV streaming platforms to scratch the YouTube TV itch.

Losing Amazon's Prime Video and YouTube itself would be much bigger deal breakers for viewers. Prime has a lot of proprietary content, and its push into picking up select NFL games and its $8.5 billion springtime acquisition of the iconic MGM movie studio will make it even more compelling. YouTube has been the top dog of short-form video for years. Growth will likely slow if Roku loses one and definitely slow if it loses both platforms.

However, Alphabet and Amazon have even more to lose. Roku is a tastemaker now with 55 million connected homes on its side. It also doesn't help that the climate against big tech isn't very kind. If YouTube and Prime Video are taken off the leading third-party operating system (to the benefit of their own parent companies' proprietary hardware), you can be sure that it's going to wind up in congressional hearings at some point. Nobody wins if the battle between tech and media stocks gets messy.

We won't have to wait long for an official update. Roku reports quarterly results on Wednesday afternoon, and you know that this is a hot topic that is going to come up during the subsequent earnings call.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Rick Munarriz owns shares of Alphabet (C shares), Amazon, and Roku. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Amazon, and Roku. The Motley Fool recommends the following options: long January 2022 $1,920 calls on Amazon and short January 2022 $1,940 calls on Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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