Feb 3, 2020 - Technology

TV battles spill into streaming

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The spats between TV distributors and networks that grew out of the cable and satellite era are beginning to spill over into the streaming world.

Why it matters: Consumers that cut the cord to avoid paying for expensive TV packages are going to be susceptible to some of the same problems, like programming blackouts, that they had with traditional television.

Driving the news: Roku and Fox reached a distribution agreement late Friday night, the companies said, narrowly avoiding a programming blackout that could have otherwise left TV viewers unable to watch the Super Bowl on their Roku devices.

  • The companies were at odds over Roku's contract to carry Fox content, which expired Jan. 31 without a renewal deal in place.
  • The days-long spat meant that all Fox apps on Roku's platform were be unavailable until a new contract was brokered. Fox had exclusive rights to air the game live this year.
  • The fight escalated quickly and drew concerns from consumers.

What they're saying: Fox used some of its top talent to slam Roku for the debacle, a similar tactic that networks use when negotiating with pay-TV distributors.

  • "Why is @Roku threatening to take away the FOX News app? We don’t know either! Tell Roku hands off your device, and to put you ahead of their business interests." Sean Hannity tweeted Friday.

The big picture: This isn't the first time programmers and streamers have bumped up against one another.

  • Last year, Amazon and Disney nearly failed to strike a distribution agreement to have Disney+ available on Amazon Fire TVs after clashes over advertising terms.
  • In 2015, Amazon stopped selling the Apple TV set-top box and Google Chromecast dongle amid disputes with both companies. (The company announced more than two years later that it would resume sales.)

Be smart: Unlike the traditional TV landscape, there currently aren't any regulations governing these types of negotiations in the streaming world.

  • In 2014, then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposed rules that could have aided some online video providers in programming negotiations, but the proposal collapsed after it was widely panned.
  • Roku was among the tech companies that didn’t endorse the plan.

Our thought bubble: Over-the-top video providers became popular with consumers in part because they bypassed the headaches like programming blackouts that are common with legacy pay-TV providers. Now tech companies are fighting similar battles to maintain their leverage in a very crowded market.

Go deeper: Streamers go to war over marketing

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