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Roku may lose some NBC channels as dispute over Peacock streaming deal heats up

Roku accuses Comcast of trying to force a deal on unreasonable terms

Chris Welch/The Verge

Roku is slamming Comcast’s decision to pull NBC’s TV Everywhere channels from the streaming service as negotiations over distribution for NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming service continue.

As of right now, the public statements from these companies indicate the channels will be pulled. However, it may be that the apps won’t be pulled. The Verge has learned that both Roku and Comcast are close to a deal that will stop the various apps from being pulled. The negotiations are expected to coincide with an agreement bringing Peacock to the Roku platform, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. More news is expected in the days to come.

Those channels allow Comcast customers to use Roku as a platform for streaming NBC’s various shows and other programming under its NBCUniversal umbrella. That includes content from channels like Bravo, E!, Syfy, USA, and NBC itself. It’s unclear what channels are going to be pulled from the service at this time, as Comcast has control over what gets pulled and what doesn’t. The Verge has learned that 11 network apps, 12 NBC-owned stationed apps, and 23 Telemundo apps will be removed from Roku, but no other specifics were given.

Roku executives offered to extend the existing agreement between Roku and Comcast for Comcast’s TV Everywhere channels “so that they remain accessible while we continue to work towards a Peacock agreement,” according to a statement from Roku. The statement notes that while TV Everywhere channels “represent an insignificant amount of streaming hours and revenue on our platform.” But as more people are stuck at home and a US election season is now in full swing, not having access to news and entertainment programming becomes a much bigger problem for all parties involved.

(Disclosure: Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, is also an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.)

“Comcast is removing the channels in order to try to force Roku to distribute its new Peacock service on unreasonable terms,” a Roku spokesperson tells The Verge, adding, “Comcast has declined our extension offer and so far has also refused fair and equitable business terms for the distribution of Peacock — despite the fact that they stand to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue from its distribution on the Roku platform.”

Effectively, this is similar to carriage disputes that happen between cable providers and networks in the linear television space. These periods of time when certain channels and programming is unavailable are referred to as “blackout periods.” The cable provider in this case is Roku, a streaming aggregator that carries content to TV sets. Comcast is putting pressure on Roku to try and make a deal by removing content, while Roku can argue that without its platform, millions of people will find other ways to watch said content.

“At a time when Americans need free content, Roku has made the extremely unfortunate decision to remove NBCUniversal’s leading content from their platform,” a spokesperson for NBCUniversal told The Verge.

Both AT&T and Comcast have been locked in negotiations with Roku over the distribution of their respective streaming services, NBCUniversal’s Peacock and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max. For any streaming service that uses Roku as an aggregate platform to be in people’s homes (Roku commands 44 percent of viewing time in the US, according to research released earlier this year by Conviva), they must agree to two things: the cut that Roku takes from signups and advertising inventory deals.

The cut is simple enough; like Apple, which takes 30 percent of all in-app purchases on its iOS platform, Roku takes 20 percent of signup fees. Ad inventory refers to the percentage of ads Roku takes control over once they’re served on its platform. On Roku’s website, the company says a channel controls 70 percent of its ad inventory, with Roku controlling the remaining 30 percent.

“Roku’s unreasonable demands ultimately hurt both their consumers and their consumer equipment partners to whom they’ve promised access to all apps in the marketplace,” NBCUniversal’s spokesperson added.

NBCUniversal’s team doesn’t want to give up such a substantial cut of ads, with negotiations “centered around a number closer to 15 percent,” according to CNBC. NBCUniversal is also “hesitant about connecting Peacock with third-party ad tech software it can’t control,” the CNBC report states, primarily because NBCUniversal built an entirely new form of advertising tech explicitly for Peacock. This new ad type reportedly helps track user data, sell more hyper-targeted ads, and increase overall revenue.

“This is deeply disappointing and the wrong way to treat subscribers, many of whom are Comcast customers, who pay to access these channels via their cable TV subscriptions and now will no longer be able to view these TV Everywhere channels on Roku, their platform of choice,” Roku said in an email to customers. “While these NBC TV Everywhere apps represent a very small number of streaming hours on our platform, we believe they are convenient to people who use them, especially when so many Americans are at home.​”

The email to customers also notes a number of ways for customers to continue streaming NBC. They include:

Existing Xfinity, Charter, or AT&T TV customers can stream NBCUniversal’s channels on the Xfinity Stream, Spectrum TV and AT&T TV channels available in the Roku Channel Store. You can also watch NBCUniversal’s networks through other Live TV providers such as AT&T TV Now, FuboTV, Hulu + Live TV, Sling TV, and YouTube TV, many of which offer free trials. Comcast’s decision does not affect access to the Xfinity Stream app.​

Both NBCUniversal and Roku have been in a stalemate of sorts ever since, and now it looks like the war is heating up.

Update September 18th, 11:50AM ET: The story has been updated to include statements from NBCUniversal.

Update 2, Friday September 18th, 4:46pm ET: The Verge has learned additional information about the negotiations from a source that could lead to the apps not being pulled. The story has been updated to include that information. The headline has also been changed slightly to reflect these updates.