For the first time, Roku has found itself in a heated carriage dispute that’s very familiar to cable providers, but less often associated with tech companies. Yesterday, the conflict between Roku and Fox spilled out into the open, with Roku emailing customers to announce that all of Fox’s standalone channels would abruptly be going away on January 31st.
With virtually no notice, Roku has kicked Fox Now, Fox News, and Fox Sports (among others) off its hugely popular platform. The removal comes just days before Super Bowl 2020, which Fox is broadcasting this Sunday night. After Roku’s email, Fox responded with a contentious statement that accused Roku of using its customers “as pawns” in negotiations and reminded viewers of other ways to watch the big game.
Now, Fox is striking back in another way: through its Fox News talent. Fox News hosts and contributors including Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Jeanine Pirro, Tomi Lahren, and Tammy Bruce have all tweeted out the same message imploring their fans to voice their displeasure with Roku and demand their channels back. “Why is Roku threatening to take away the FOX News app? We don’t know either,” the message reads. “Tell Roku hands off your device, and to put you ahead of their business interests.” The tweet mentions Roku’s Twitter handle, which is already being inundated with angry messages over the situation.
Roku hasn’t gone into great detail over what it and Fox are at odds on, only noting that it offered Fox an “extension” to potentially avoid this sudden inconvenience for customers. But the smart money is on this coming down to advertising. Yes, Roku makes a bunch of popular streaming gadgets, but most of its revenue stems from the advertising business it has built atop the easy-to-use software platform that now has over 30 million users. In December, Bloomberg reported that Roku has become increasingly comfortable exerting its power. “Roku executives will threaten to cancel a channel if its owner doesn’t give Roku a larger cut of ad sales,” the report said.
The prior deal that Fox and Roku had in place expires today, which has led us to this deadlock.
It’s still possible that the two sides will work something out prior to Sunday. But Fox is now using some of its most recognizable personalities to send a very clear message to Roku that it’s willing to keep fighting this one out. Smaller channels don’t wield the same power, but we’re starting off 2020 with a new type of conflict in the streaming wars. It’s not unusual for networks to use talent as their public face in these standoffs with DirecTV, Dish, or other cable / satellite operators. But Roku, which has sought to paint itself as a neutral platform overseer, isn’t accustomed to being so publicly called out.