On Friday morning, Roku pulled YouTube TV from its channel store. Its removal came after Roku’s distribution agreement for the app expired and negotiations between it and Google fell apart without any new deal in sight.
The popular streaming hardware maker warned customers of this outcome earlier in the week, claiming that Google was demanding unrealistic terms to renew YouTube TV’s slot on the platform. Those asks, according to Roku, included access to sensitive customer data and an apparent commitment from Roku to support AV1 decoding in future products. That requires extra hardware that Roku maintains could increase the cost of its devices. Roku also says that Google is trying to have changes made to Roku’s search feature, an assertion that Google has strongly denied.
The war of words has quickly gotten intense, with Roku noting the antitrust investigations that Google currently faces and framing this standoff as another example of the company wielding its “monopoly position.”
On the other side, Google has pointed to Roku’s recent spats with HBO Max, Peacock, and others as a clear, growing trend of Roku abusing its huge market share and influential presence in the living room. “Roku terminated our deal in bad faith amidst our negotiation,” the company said on its YouTube TV blog. “Unfortunately, Roku has often engaged in this tactic with other streaming providers.”
The back-and-forth is reminiscent of the carriage disputes that regularly happen between cable companies and TV network owners. But this is a much more 2021 version, and Roku is squaring off with a tech giant that doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to back down.
Here’s a rundown of how the relationship between the two companies quickly spiraled.
Roku and YouTube TV dispute timeline
April 26th: Roku sends an email to customers, explaining that it might soon have to remove YouTube TV. “Recent negotiations with Google to carry YouTube TV have broken down because Roku cannot accept Google’s unfair terms as we believe they could harm our users,” the company says. At the end of the email, Roku tells frustrated customers they should urge Google to make a deal.
Google responds soon after, saying, “We’re disappointed that they chose to make baseless claims while we continue our ongoing negotiations.”
April 30th, 8:00AM ET: YouTube TV is removed from the Roku channel store. Those who have already installed the app on a Roku device can continue using it, but new downloads are no longer possible. Subscriptions from within the YouTube TV app are also disabled. Roku sends another email to customers about the situation and urges them not to delete the YouTube TV app if they already have it.
April 30th 11:50AM ET: Google strikes back at Roku with a blog post that accuses the company of underhanded negotiation tactics. “Our initial conversations started with Roku simply to renew the current terms of their ongoing deal with YouTube TV, which has been in place for several years. Our offer to Roku was simple and still stands: renew the YouTube TV deal under the existing reasonable terms.”
Google criticizes Roku for unnecessarily bringing the flagship YouTube app into negotiation talks; the deal for that app doesn’t expire until December. But Google tacitly acknowledges it’s pushing Roku to adopt the AV1 codec, saying, “Our agreements with partners have technical requirements to ensure a high quality experience on YouTube.” The company again denies it has asked Roku for exclusive customer data or to change its search feature.
April 30th 1:19PM ET: Google tries to rally YouTube TV customers into its dispute with Roku. In an afternoon email, customers are encouraged to tweet at Roku and contact the company in other ways to voice their support for YouTube TV staying on the platform. Google reminds customers of fallback methods for viewing YouTube TV, including casting and using other streaming devices.
May 7th 1:30PM ET: Google announces that it has come up with a workaround that will let YouTube TV subscribers access the service right through the main YouTube app as negotiations with Roku continue. It also says it’s in discussions “with other partners to secure free streaming devices in case YouTube TV members face any access issues on Roku.”
May 7th 3:14PM ET: Roku lashes out at Google after news spreads of the workaround, calling the company “an unchecked monopolist” that is “leveraging its YouTube monopoly to force an independent company into an agreement that is both bad for consumers and bad for fair competition.”
What are Roku and Google fighting over?
Roku claims that Google is making demands on several fronts. It’s accusing the company of trying to muck with its search results, strong-arming Roku into supporting AV1, and asking for a deeper layer of customer data that other streaming apps don’t have access to. “We simply cannot agree to terms that would manipulate consumer search results, inflate the cost of our products, and violate established industry data practices,” Roku said in a statement.
Google has flatly denied trying to interfere with search or demanding a special view into customer data. Its statements portray Roku as a bully in streaming hardware that’s angling for “special treatment” that other YouTube partners don’t receive.
Protocol’s Janko Roettgers covers the AV1 codec situation nicely here. Google has been pushing Android TV device makers and smart TV manufacturers to build in support for AV1 decoding. YouTube is a hugely popular app, so Google has quite the bargaining chip. AV1 is a more efficient codec for high-resolution video streaming in 4K HDR and 8K, but it requires hardware for decoding.
The bit of irony in all this is that Google’s own $50 Chromecast with Google TV does not currently include hardware-based AV1 decoding. So Roku is upset Google wants it to “accept hardware requirements that would increase consumer costs.” Roku’s cheapest streaming players still undercut the Chromecast by as much as $30. If the price of those goes up, Roku loses a key advantage over the competition. But there’s no denying that these disputes between Roku and content providers are becoming more frequent.
We’ll have to see how long this feud continues on for. For the sake of paying YouTube TV subscribers, hopefully it won’t stretch out too far. But based on today’s comments, it seems like the rift between Roku and Google is only growing deeper.
Update May 7th 3:30PM ET: The article has been updated with details on Google’s workaround for streaming YouTube TV through the primary YouTube app.